Brian Burt - Speculative Fiction
[This story was written in a burst of patriotic fervor following the tragic events of September 11, 2001.]
"You're sure he's in there?"
Farooq Mfaarsi had that look again - the frozen stare that Special Agent Ron Driscoll thought of as the "x-ray eyes." Even after eight months, that look still gave Driscoll the creeps. "And you're sure he's alone?"
"Yes. He has dispatched his own bodyguards to protect Osama as best they can. His spirit is broken. He will offer no resistance."
Colonel Berringer snorted on the ridge beside them. "These al-Qaeda whackos don't stop resisting until six months after they're planted."
"Mohammed Atef believed that his network was invisible and invincible," said Mfaarsi. "You have crippled it. Only he and Osama remain. Dozens of his most trusted brothers - men he swore in Allah’s name to protect - have been killed or captured. Shame has smothered the fire inside him."
Berringer scowled. "Thanks for your analysis, Mr. Mfaarsi. Forgive me if I choose not to risk the lives of my men on the basis of your intuition."
Berringer turned to the soldiers huddled behind him. They were hand-picked from the military's elite branches: Army Rangers, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, Marines. Driscoll had never worked with such an all-star unit and felt uncomfortably like the weakest link. He was here to handle Mfaarsi - nothing more. The commandos studied the ragged mountainside sloping away beneath them to the mouth of the cave where Atef hid. Berringer quietly issued commands.
"Parker, your team approaches from the west. Gutierrez, bring your team in from the east. Once you're in position, wait for my signal. The rest of you spread out along the ridge. If anything moves down there in a place you don't expect, eliminate it. Let's do our job, men, and do it right!"
Parker and Gutierrez led their teams down the mountain on opposite sides of the cave, slipping like shadows through morning twilight. Soon five commandos crouched on each side of the entrance. Berringer waved his arm in a wide, rapid arc. Both teams knifed into the black maw of the mountain to stalk another of bin Laden's inner circle. Driscoll waited anxiously for the crack of automatic weapons fire. Mfaarsi stared at the mountainside - expressionless, unblinking - as if he saw everything happening inside.
In less than a minute, ten commandos emerged from the cave with a handcuffed, blindfolded prisoner in their midst. They hoisted him up the mountain to Berringer's control point, the cover teams collapsing back along the ridge to meet them. Driscoll sighed with relief. Mfaarsi remained as stone-faced as the Afghan peaks.
One of the team leaders - Gutierrez - reported status. "He was holed up alone, sir, just like Mfaarsi said. He never moved, never said a word… hell, he barely looked at us. We might as well have been cuffing a corpse."
Mfaarsi's face shifted like desert sand, its landscape amorphous, unreadable. "You have killed his cause. His life - his death - they have no meaning now."
Berringer scowled again. "They have plenty of meaning to a few hundred million Americans and the rest of the civilized world. Let's double-time back to the pickup zone and call in the choppers. I want us off this rock before any of the local fanatics notice their guest is missing."
The commandos moved quickly and efficiently up the ravine that led to the landing site. Two helicopters met them there, rotors whirling grit into the crisp morning air. They scrambled into the choppers and watched the mountains drop away beneath them as they thundered east toward Kandahar. Agent Driscoll rode in the lead chopper with Berringer. Mohammed Atef, al-Qaeda's head of military operations, sat securely stowed in the rear - silent, unmoving - while Berringer's commandos celebrated another successful mission.
No shots fired. No casualties. Mfaarsi had made things easy again, guiding them straight to their quarry. Mfaarsi sat statue-still next to Driscoll. Amid all the crowing and backslapping, nobody said a word to him.
Nobody ever did.
* * *
Night had fallen in the mountains near Kandahar where Delta Force made their base camp, bringing relief from the stifling heat of midday. By morning, it would be close to freezing outside the tents. Afghanistan was the only place Agent Driscoll had ever been that could threaten you with hypothermia and heat stroke in the same day. Still, it had been a good day for Berringer's commandos. With Mohammed Atef in custody, they had nailed every senior member of the al-Qaeda network except one. The most important one. Colonel Berringer pointed at a spot on the map spread out across his planning table and stared daggers at Mfaarsi.
"You're absolutely certain that he’s here - this far north - in the middle of nowhere?"
Mfaarsi's x-ray eyes stared past the map, through Berringer, as if studying the actual geography of that distant place. "The area is remote, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest major town, which suited Osama's need to be able to vanish for long periods of time. He had a hardened bunker built into the side of a mountain there, equipped with all the luxuries a former Saudi prince comes to expect. Three hundred million dollars can buy much security. It can also buy the Taliban officials who are capable of keeping its existence and location secret."
Berringer's stubbornness gnawed at Driscoll's patience. "Farooq's been on target with every piece of intelligence he's given you. Let's stop wasting time. You can send a scout team to verify this by chopper tomorrow morning. If it pans out, we can supply coordinates to the Air Force and let them turn bin Laden and his bunker into a pile of smoking rubble. That completes your checklist of al-Qaeda targets without putting any ground troops at risk."
"It's not that simple," said Berringer. "My orders are to take bin Laden alive. His trial - a very public one, played out on the world stage for all of our allies and enemies to see - will expose him and his cronies for the evil, inhuman cowards they really are. If he dies in this hellhole without being forced to answer fully for his sins, he might become a martyr to a whole new generation of terrorists." Berringer inspected the map again. "All right, Mr. Mfaarsi. My men will be prepped and ready to roll at dawn. Better get your beauty sleep, because I expect you to be infallible when we locate that bunker. That’s all for now."
Mfaarsi turned and left the Colonel's tent without a word. Two soldiers flanking the entrance fell into step behind him. Berringer watched him disappear with a thinly disguised expression of disgust. "It turns my stomach to have to rely on that man, Driscoll. For my money, he's no better than the scum we're hunting; worse, in fact, because he betrays his fellow scum to save his own hide and collect a king's ransom in reward money."
"The bureau hasn't offered Mfaarsi a cent for the information he's provided, and he hasn't asked for any reward. As far as saving his own hide: Mfaarsi was never on any FBI list of suspects. He's putting himself in danger every day, Colonel, just like your men."
"Come on, Driscoll, the man has to have been a member of bin Laden’s network - and pretty highly placed - to know the things he knows. If not for money or immunity, then why is he turning on them?"
"As far as we can tell, Farooq Mfaarsi has been fighting these fanatics longer than you or I have. He was one of the Taliban's most outspoken critics, before and after they came to power. He barely made it out of Kabul before they could stick his head on a pike. Some of his friends weren't so lucky. As an Afghan exile, he's consistently attacked the Taliban and Islamic terrorist groups despite the extreme risk those positions have created for him personally. If he's a sleeper, he's a better actor than DeNiro."
"If your man was never an al-Qaeda operative, then you tell me: how does he know the things he knows? How does he know every hiding place, every ambush point, every quirk of every high-ranking psycho in their network?"
"He says he has his own team of 'special forces.' He probably does have contacts throughout Afghanistan - he was a respected Muslim scholar here - but we haven't seen him exchange more than five words with the locals since he arrived. I don't believe he was ever involved with al-Qaeda, Colonel… but I can't explain how he does what he does."
"That's the problem. The man is a mystery, and I do not tolerate mysteries on my operations. We still don't have bin Laden, and bin Laden is the key to victory - at least the PR victory - in this war on terrorism. I don't want any mistakes tomorrow. I expect you to stick to Mfaarsi like flies to carrion until our mission is completed."
Driscoll rubbed his eyes, tried to silence the drumbeat in his temples. He hadn't slept well in days… months, really. "That's why I’m here, Colonel. Between your men and mine, Mfaarsi can't go to the can without somebody proofreading the toilet paper."
Berringer put a hand on Driscoll's shoulder. "I want you to know that I trust your abilities, Agent Driscoll, your commitment to duty. I just don't trust Mfaarsi. Tomorrow, like it or not, I'll have to."
"We'll all have to, Colonel." And maybe I could trust you better, Farooq, if you'd tell me what you’re hiding.
* * *
Driscoll woke up gasping, disoriented, clawing at his sleeping bag. The bag, the tent, the blackness of the Afghan night wrapped around him like the multi-layered windings of a shroud. He struggled to control his breathing, to calm himself. The dim glow of his chronometer put the time at just after 2:00 a.m., local. Another long night... and another early morning on the horizon.
He lay there, exhausted but dreading sleep, and listened for a sound that had become familiar since he and Mfaarsi had arrived in Afghanistan and begun sharing a tent. He had tried to describe it to his wife in one of his e-mails home - god, he missed her and the boys - but he could not capture the essence of it with mere words.
It sounded... like a thousand people in a vast chamber, on the other side of a tightly sealed door, whispering a thousand conversations. The words collided, melted into a barely audible murmur. No matter how he strained, Driscoll could not glean any meaningful message from it. Trying, night after night, was driving him crazy.
"Knock it off, Farooq! If we don't get some sleep, we won't be sharp tomorrow... and Berringer will have us both for breakfast."
The whispering did not stop, but it receded, as if the voices had moved to the far side of their hidden chamber. "The Colonel would have me for breakfast even if I brought him Osama bin Laden bound in chains. He will always find a reason to despise me."
"He doesn't despise you. He just doesn't understand you. If you'd level with us about your sources, Berringer might start treating you like a member of the team."
"I have told you, Agent Driscoll: I have my special forces, as you do. Thousands of them. They are invisible to our enemies, but they see everything. They share their observations with me, and I share them with you. I cannot tell you more than that."
"That's not an answer. Why can't you just tell me the simple truth, Farooq?"
"Because you would not believe me."
"Try me. I might surprise you."
The whispers drew closer. The chill night air froze solid. Plumes of mist rose from Driscoll's nostrils; he could not stop shivering. Mfaarsi's voice chiseled through the ice, soft and mild, but somehow colder.
"You had a brother - Joseph - who worked as a broker in the World Trade Center. You had a dear friend - Manuel - who left the FBI to work in building security there so he could spend more time with his family. To you, those towers were never One and Two, or North and South. They were Joe and Manny. You watch them tumble to the ground, again and again in your nightmares, but you see shattered bone in place of steel, flesh crumbling to dust, hear the howls of your brother and your friend echo through the canyons of Manhattan. And - worst of all - you blame yourself. You are an anti-terrorism expert. Somehow, you should have seen it coming. Somehow, you should have prevented it. You hear their ghosts, cursing from the rubble... cursing you."
The ice was melting. It had to be. Driscoll could feel it dripping down his cheeks.
"Joe and Manny have a message for you, Agent Driscoll: they do not want your guilt. They want your help. Follow where they lead, and do what must be done to give them peace. That is what they seek... for themselves, and for the living."
"How are you doing this? Why?"
"When I saw the horror of that day unfold, I grieved with every American. But - as a Muslim - I was sickened beyond measure. For these... monsters... to commit such atrocities and hide behind a mask of piety, to poison Islam with their evil! I prayed with all my heart that Allah would strike them down without allowing them to steal the lives of other innocents: Americans or Afghans. He heard my prayers. And I heard... other prayers. Just a few, at first. Then more, and more, a flood of disembodied voices. My special forces wander, they watch, and they whisper - in the morning, the evening, throughout the endless nights."
Mfaarsi sat up on his cot. Driscoll saw only his eyes, two sparks drowning in a sea of shadows. "Why am I here, Agent Driscoll? Because I want justice, as you do. As they do. And I want to sleep again. We all want to sleep."
The whispering resumed, louder, as if the door to that other place had opened just a crack. Driscoll lay there in the darkness with his eyes wide open, listening... straining to recognize two voices among multitudes.
Berringer's commandos worked their way down the mountain from the plateau where the helicopters had dropped them. Driscoll had seen these men keep their cool in the heat of battle - one Taliban militia ambush near Ghazni leapt to mind, a situation that could have turned extremely nasty if Mfaarsi had not warned them before the firefight began - but, today, they seemed agitated. This was not just another snatch-and-grab to nail another ranking member of al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden was the heart of a vast malignancy that had wormed its tentacles into countless lands, destroying whatever it could reach. Until they drove a stake through that heart, there would be no victory. No peace.
The soldiers sniffed it in the air, as Driscoll did. Something big was brewing. Driscoll did not know if it would be a wonderful thing, or a terrible thing, but he felt the irresistible pull of its gravity and knew there was no chance of turning back.
Mfaarsi held up his hand. Berringer's commandos grew roots. They did not trust Mfaarsi, really… but they had learned to heed his intuition in the field. Mfaarsi pointed at a black oval at the base of a cliff fifty meters to their west. "There. That is the entrance to Osama’s shelter."
"I think you have your wires crossed today, Mr. Mfaarsi," snapped the Colonel. "That hole barely looks big enough for a man to squeeze through, much less hide out in for the better part of a year."
"It is designed to look that way. A massive slab of rock was cut away while Osama's engineers excavated the interior chambers. After they completed work, they replaced the original rock and chiseled the small tunnel that leads to the inner door. Osama's lair is well hidden… both from mountain wanderers and military satellites."
"How secure is it?"
"The door is 15-centimeter steel, reinforced with locking rods like the door of a bank vault. Osama has surveillance cameras in the tunnel and above the entrance, plus motion sensors to trigger an alarm inside. There is a turret gun mounted above the inner door which Osama can aim and fire by remote control."
Berringer cursed under his breath. "That's one well-fortified hole the snake has dug for himself. As narrow as that tunnel is, we'd have to send one man in to try to blow the door. An anti-tank missile might do the job, but I don't like the odds of the man who has to fire it. How many are in there besides bin Laden?"
"Four: Osama's two personal bodyguards, and the two Mohammed Atef dispatched to assist them. They are armed with AK-47 assault rifles."
Berringer squinted at the cliff. "The engineers must have drilled ventilation shafts… probably at the top, where they'd be hard to spot. We may have to try dropping knockout gas down the pipes or plugging them and waiting for him to run out of air. I don't like those options. They're too damned slow. Gives him plenty of time to call some of his suicidal 'soldiers of god' to the party, and we're too exposed out here. We'd have to call in reinforcements. That'll increase our visibility, make a firefight almost a certainty."
Driscoll stared at the hole in the cliff. That sense of… imminence… hung so thick it nearly smothered him. "I understand your orders, Colonel, but getting bin Laden alive is not as important as getting him, period. Maybe it's time to call in an air strike."
Mfaarsi's x-ray eyes bored holes into the cliff face. "That will not be necessary. You do not need to find a way to Osama. Osama will come to you."
A muffled cry sounded in the distance. Seconds later, a man shot out of the tunnel mouth, an AK-47 slung over one shoulder. Berringer's commandos dropped to their knees in one synchronized movement, shouldering their rifles and taking aim. The first man did not even see them. He turned back toward the tunnel, where three other armed Afghans exploded from the hole in quick succession. They were yelling and gesturing wildly. At last, one of the terrorists spotted the commandos. The yelling stopped. Driscoll waited for the shooting to start. Instead, something happened that Driscoll simply could not believe: all four al-Qaeda bodyguards threw down their rifles and ran directly toward their enemies, arms raised high, voices raised higher in a frantic babble.
A Green Beret who specialized in the local languages hissed a question at Mfaarsi without taking his eyes off the approaching Afghans. "Sounds like Pashto dialect. What's that they're saying? 'Save us, Allah'?"
"Not 'Save us, Allah'," answered Mfaarsi, still staring at the cliff. "'Save us from Allah'."
Another figure emerged from the tunnel: tall, emaciated, with a wild growth of beard and wilder eyes. He clutched an AK-47 tightly in both hands. He cursed the bodyguards, in Pashto and in Arabic, voice shrill with fury. This man bore no resemblance to the calm, controlled leader who spoke of Muslim glory on al-Qaeda recruiting videos.
At that moment, Osama bin Laden looked exactly like the maniac most Westerners imagined him to be.
The four bodyguards dove to the ground as if they planned to burrow into it to escape bin Laden, who shifted his rifle toward their unprotected backs. Berringer's voice cut through the chaos, hard and sharp. "Take him down gently. Uncle Sam wants him alive!" One of the Green Berets shouted in Arabic for bin Laden to drop his weapon. Bin Laden froze. For one tense, interminable moment, no one moved. Then, an ear-splitting screech - a raw, utterly inhuman sound - reverberated in the tunnel from which the terrorists had just emerged. Bin Laden spun away from the commandos and the prostrate bodyguards, raised his rifle, and unleashed a hail of gunfire back into the tunnel mouth.
Four of Berringer's best marksmen fired in unison. The stock of bin Laden's AK-47 exploded, flying out of his grip. He jerked like a spastic puppet as other bullets struck one shoulder and the meat of both his thighs, then he collapsed in a writhing, screaming heap. The Colonel's voice rose in triumph. "Bull's-eye! Parker, secure the four cowards sucking sand to your left. Gutierrez, get down there to bin Laden with a medic. I don't want the crazy S.O.B. bleeding to death before we get him to trial."
Mfaarsi spoke with a quiet certainty that made them all stop. Driscoll shuddered - the pall of foreboding choked his lungs, clouded his vision.
"He is not for you, Colonel," said Mfaarsi. "Osama has already been tried, and convicted, and sentenced by a higher court than any we can offer. Please, tell your men not to interfere… for their own good."
"Listen, you mealy-mouthed little snitch," barked Berringer, "who do you think…."
The Colonel never finished. Only later did he and Driscoll and the others understand: Mfaarsi had not been issuing a threat. He had, as so often in the past, simply been trying to steer them clear of harm.
A ball of fire belched from the dark hole that led to bin Laden's hideout, engulfing the al-Qaeda leader from head to toe. Bin Laden shrieked in agony, arms and legs flailing as he rolled, trying to beat out the flames. Another fireball hurtled out of the hole, and another, and another, as if the tunnel had become the barrel of some infernal gun. They formed a vortex around bin Laden, spinning faster as they spiraled inward, a whirlwind of flame.
Driscoll watched in disbelief. The fireballs stretched, shifted into shapes; Driscoll caught a glimpse of arms and legs, the black caverns of eye sockets filled with bottomless wells of hatred. Driscoll shook his head to clear away the apparitions. They would not disappear. He turned toward Mfaarsi. Stoic, emotionless Mfaarsi. The look of horror on Mfaarsi's face chilled Driscoll to the core.
"What are they?"
"You could call them a strike team from my special forces - a group with unique insight into al-Qaeda's workings. They have tortured Osama's dreams for months. He promised them paradise in exchange for their lives. When they stood in judgment before Allah, the reward they received was very different. They are eager to share that bounty with the man who sold their souls to feed his own ego."
"Why did they wait until now, Farooq? Why did you even need to bring us here?"
"Because the living have as much right to see this monster punished as do the dead. A proper execution requires witnesses who represent the victims."
The fiery whirlwind collapsed upon bin Laden. Bin Laden's shriek swelled into a roar. Driscoll watched the man's flesh vaporize, his dancing bones dissolve to dust. In their place stood a creature forged from hellfire, an afterimage of bin Laden cast in flame. The whirlwind swallowed what was left of him. The roar had become unbearable. Driscoll pressed his palms against his ears to dull the thunder of it, could feel the mountain bedrock trembling beneath his feet. The vortex spun, corkscrewed down into the earth until the flames had vanished, leaving behind a plume of oily smoke and the nauseating stench of roasted meat.
Where Osama bin Laden had stood, only a blackened pit remained.
For a long, long time, there was no sound on that Afghan mountainside except the sighing of the wind. "Sweet God in Heaven," muttered Berringer. "I guess it's fair to say bin Laden has been eliminated… but we don't have a single shred of proof. Nobody back in Washington is going to believe this story."
"Some will sense the truth of it," said Mfaarsi. "Others will scoff. As with all mysteries, it is ultimately a matter of faith."
Three shots rang out in rapid-fire succession. Berringer’s commandos - consummate professionals - had been distracted by events for which no amount of training could have prepared them. No one had yet searched the four al-Qaeda prisoners for concealed weapons. One of the terrorists held a pistol in his hand, lips curled into a snarl. Even with Driscoll's limited command of Pashto, he recognized the shooter's cry: "Traitor!" Beside him, Farooq Mfaarsi sprawled in the dirt, bleeding. Bleeding badly.
A dozen soldiers, including Colonel Berringer, raised their M4's and fired, sending bin Laden's most trusted bodyguard to join his master.
Driscoll knelt beside Mfaarsi, vaguely registering the cries for a medic, the circle of faces overhead. He saw the stains spreading across Mfaarsi's chest and knew a medic would do no good. He grabbed Mfaarsi's wrist, searched for a pulse he could not find, realized that Mfaarsi was not breathing. He noticed something else.
For the first time Driscoll could remember, Farooq Mfaarsi's face looked… peaceful.
* * *
Driscoll lay on his cot in the familiar darkness of an unfamiliar, empty tent. There had been no celebration at base camp on this night, despite bin Laden's elimination, for two reasons: Berringer's commandos knew they had been mere spectators on this mission, and they had lost one of their own. Strangely, by dying at the hands of the enemy, Mfaarsi had finally won acceptance from the others. They mourned him as a fallen comrade. Driscoll's own grief mingled with a numbing sense of guilt. He had been responsible for Mfaarsi's welfare. He had failed... again. After all the crazy things that had happened on this day, one thing remained unchanged: Driscoll still couldn't sleep.
"Nor can I, Agent Driscoll. Nor can I."
Driscoll sat bolt upright. He stared at the cot - the unoccupied cot - on the other side of the tent, already starting to sweat despite the chill.
"Farooq? How in God's name...."
"Yes, my friend. In God's name. Allah has a message for His children, of all nations and all faiths, and you must deliver it. There are no holy wars. Only peace is holy. Peace is the one thing worth fighting for... and the fight is not over. It has just begun."
Driscoll heard it, then - a babble of whispers, tickling his eardrums, scratching at the inside of his skull. He felt it blowing over him, the first breath of an approaching storm. Some storms brought destruction. Others simply cleansed the lands beneath them.
This storm would do both... and it would leave no corner of the Earth untouched.