Authors: John Birmingham
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Politics, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Dystopia, #Apocalyptic
To judge from the yipping cries and gales of laughter that reached him between the volleys of rocket fire, they were still dancing and capering around the launchers. Yusuf shook his head in dismay. He was no more than fifteen, maybe sixteen years old. Nobody knew for sure. But he had been a soldier for nearly ten of those years, and he had seen unknowable numbers of men and women and of course children, such as he had once been, who had died because they did not take the business of war seriously.
Another string of missiles shrieked away into the sky, describing a great soaring arc over the river, traced by dirty gray trails of smoke. From his makeshift bunker, where he clutched an AK-47 to his chest and leaned against a canvas bag full of loaded magazines, he could not see the launch of the rockets or where they fell on the far side of the water. But he could hear them as they crashed down on the heads of the infidel, the thunder rolling back across the river like the sound of God’s judgment.
Laughter and the words of an obscene Somali drinking song also reached him.
He sighed heavily. Allah’s judgment would fall heavily on both sides of the river today.
Yusuf risked a peek over the barricade of broken concrete blocks and bricks and loose black soil behind which he was hidden. Amid the roaring rush of the missile barrage he thought he heard the distant buzzing of attack helicopters, a terrible sound he knew only too well. From his vantage point overlooking a large rectangular field covered in thick, tall swards of grass and a small forest of gray stunted trees, he could not see the southern end of Manhattan, but he had a clear view of another large island directly across from the mouth of the large dock that all but cut Ellis Island in half. A small swarm of black metal insects appeared to be rising from somewhere within the middle of that island. They had been told by the emir’s officers that it was a base for one of the American militias and that they could expect the response to their attack to come from there.
Yusuf tightened his grip on his weapon and marveled just a little at how nervous he was. He had fought in many battles in his short life, but most of them of course had been in Africa against other primitive forces. As the vague dark shapes resolved themselves into the outlines of the helicopters he knew as Apaches, the young fighter allowed himself a small measure of pride in how far he had come. There was a time when he thought of his first allies, the small band of Ugandan child fighters by whom he had been abducted and with whom he fought for five years, as the finest, the toughest, the most ferocious warriors in the world. Now, hunkered down thousands of miles from home, or at least from the continent he called home, he thought of his first band of comrades and their fabulously cruel commander Captain Kono as nothing more than stupid savages. They fought for the same reason he had fought. Because Captain Kono and his men had taken them from their homes, murdered their families, and threatened to kill them if they did not fight for him. Yusuf checked his weapon one last time, looked around in vain for the other mujahideen who were supposed to be manning a strongpoint with him, and mouthed a quiet prayer of thanks for the opportunity the emir had given him not just to escape Kono and the ridiculous Lord’s Resistance Army but to lift himself up into the light and the forgiveness of the one true God.
he said quietly to himself. Not fiercely, not boastfully, but quietly and piously and most of all with great love in his heart for the infinite forgiveness that Allah had bestowed upon a former infidel such as he.
He crouched down below the lip of his fighting pit. The emir’s men had trained him well. He knew all about the wondrous technology with which the Americans still fought in spite of the great blow God had smashed down upon them. He knew that merely popping his head up for just a second or two might be the last thing he ever did. It made the stupid, animalistic laughter and shouting of the other fighters, who were
apparently dancing around the rocket trucks somewhere behind him, all the more galling. Had they learned nothing?
The answer came in the form of a sudden high-pitched screeching sound as the Americans finally reached out with their own rockets and missiles. Yusuf burrowed as deeply into his little pit as he could and breathed out to protect himself from the waves of overpressure that surely would follow the impact of the aptly named Hellfire missiles. Huddled into a tight ball, pressing himself into the earth, he had only the vaguest impression of the sky above the island suddenly turning lethal. Whereas their rockets, launched from the back of trucks driven in darkness over the long causeway from the mainland to this former migrant-processing center, had lanced through the air like the spears of Zulu warriors, the American attack seemed to fill the entire space a few feet above his head with roaring death. There was no
of volleying rocket fire. There was only a huge and instantly terrifying eruption of noise and fire and smoke as the very earth seemed to shake beneath his cowering form. Shock and horror rolled over the boy soldier as he thought it possible the Americans might just demolish the entire island, pouring fire onto the rubble until it subsided beneath the waters of the river.
He did not know how long he lay there, quaking in fear. His abject terror was so great, so overwhelming, that a few times he felt himself subject to a whole-body hallucination, the feeling that he was being squeezed out of his mortal remains in the bottom of his bunker. His mind seemed to float free of the hell in which his body was trapped, but it did not escape, falling instead down a long dark tunnel at the end of which a smaller, younger version of himself lay quivering in fear many, many years ago. As in a dream, he had no grasp of the hard edges of this vision. It was more a sensation and a few half-remembered images he had long ago tried to forget. His mother screaming in pain after Captain Kono’s men had cut the lips from her face. His tiny, spindly little boy arms shaking and useless, all but paralyzed with mortal dread as he held a makeshift club and stood over his uncle Bongani while Kono screamed in his face to kill the old man if Yusuf wanted to live.
Of course in those days his name was not Yusuf Mohammed. He did not remember what his name had been when he lived in the village with his mother and uncle and brothers and sisters and all his cousins. He did not remember being happy, but at times even now he assumed he must have been, even if that happiness was born of ignorance.
Yusuf Mohammed forced himself out of the waking nightmare before it could get any worse. And it could get much worse than the memory of his murdering a kindly and much loved uncle just to save his own life. He forced himself to open his senses to the real world even though it was a hell of fire and death. He was surprised to find himself lying on open ground a few feet from his dugout, which was smoking and ruined as though from a bomb blast. His heart, already trip-hammering, lurched sickeningly in his chest as he caught sight of a disembodied arm and a leg trailing the gruesome tendrils of torn flesh and muscle and meat he knew so well from the battlefield. But as he pushed himself up off the ground, he knew they were not his limbs. He was still all in one piece.
His weapon was still secured to him by its strap, but the canvas bag full of magazines was missing, and his chest throbbed with a great dull pain as though he had been struck heavily.
A terrible sound like the clanging of a large metal press brought him further back to his senses as one of the Americans’ Apache helicopters flew overhead, hosing long lines of machine gun fire into an unseen target. A scalding hot rain of empty brass shell cases began to tinkle around him, burning his skin whenever one touched him. Yusuf scrambled to his feet but stayed crouched as low as he could, running for cover into the nearest building. He nearly tripped on the remains of one of his fellow fighters who was lying a few yards away. A head and maybe a third of the upper torso, the rest just viscera and bloody ruin. He thought he recognized Abayneh the Ethiopian. An unbeliever gone to his punishment. He had probably been one of the drunken fools cavorting around the rocket launchers. Why did the emir’s lieutenants allow the consumption of liquor among the janissaries? Among the fedayeen it was strictly forbidden. At the end Abayneh remained a pirate and an ally of convenience, nothing more. Most of the men on the island were like him. Only a handful of the righteous had been salted through their number to stiffen their resolve and attend to the technical aspects of managing the rocket barrage so that it fell as close to the target as possible.
As one of the righteous, Yusuf knew his duty. He rushed toward the nearest building clutching his weapon, his lungs burning as much from the smoke as from the exertion. For the first time since the American counterattack had begun he heard voices, speaking in Arabic. His spirits soared. Some of the fedayeen must have survived and rallied together in this building. He rushed onward, his feet seeming to fly across the ground as a burst of machine gun fire from above scythed down the chest-high grass in front of him. He ran on regardless of the danger. If it was Allah’s will that he should die, then he would die.
But he did not. Diving through a shattered doorway, he found himself inside a large room, empty except for what looked like some desks and chairs that had long ago been pushed into one corner and covered with a heavy dust cloth. He came up out of his roll, clutching his weapon as he had been taught, and found two comrades shouting orders out of a window. It was hard to hear them clearly over the uproar and the clatter of American fire, but merely hearing the familiar sound of their voices was enough to give him heart for the fight.
he cried out.
One of the men spun around, pointing his gun at Yusuf but smiling a little wildly, perhaps even crazily, when he saw it was the Ugandan convert. The young warrior recognized Mustafa Ali, one of the officers responsible for coordinating the rocket barrage. A Pakistani, a good man with a large family over in one of the outlying camps. “Come, come quickly,” he cried out to Yusuf. “They are here. Quickly now, follow us.”
Ali and his comrade, an Arab that Yusuf recognized but did not know, grabbed a pair of RPG-7s leaning against the windowsill and ran for a doorway at the end of the room, motioning for Yusuf to follow them. He did so, catching a glimpse through the window of the truck-mounted rocket launchers on the roadway outside. They had been destroyed, utterly destroyed, as if a giant had smashed his fist down on top of them. The wreckage was aflame, and occasionally small explosions tossed twisted metal refuse into the air as ammunition or fuel cooked off. Of the janissaries, or the foolish drunken pirates as he thought of them, there was little to be seen beyond a few chunks of burning meat and random limbs scattered here and there.
It meant nothing to Yusuf. The carnage of battle was familiar to him, even if the terrible intensity of the American attack was something new. Feeling dizzy, with his legs wobbling and his ears ringing, he hurried to catch up with Ali and the other fedayeen. The rolling thunder of rocket and bomb blasts had abated somewhat in the last few minutes, giving way to an increasingly furious crescendo of gunfire and the clattering roar of helicopters. The three men ran toward an internal staircase, passing a couple of pirate mercenaries on their way. The pirates were no longer laughing and singing. They looked shocked and furious. Indeed, so murderously angry did they first appear that Yusuf thought it possible they might turn their weapons on the fedayeen. He almost raised his own gun, but Mustafa Ali was in the way. Probably a good thing. The pirates would almost certainly have turned on them if he had reacted that way. Instead they simply ran past one another, shouting incomprehensibly in some language he did not recognize. Yusuf followed Ali up the staircase, covering two flights of steps in what seemed like no time.
The Arab and the Pakistani exchanged a few brief words on the second floor and came quickly to an agreement. Beckoning Yusuf to follow them, they ran down along the corridor with ruined offices on one side and a long line of mostly shattered windows looking out over the burning wreckage of the rocket launchers on the other. Every inch of flesh on Yusuf’s body crawled sickeningly as an American helicopter swept by. It was one of the fat troop transports they called Blackhawks. A door gunner seemed to look right into his eyes as he worked frantically to clear a jam on his weapon. Yusuf jumped in surprise as Ali fired an
out of the window without any sort of warning. Thick acrid smoke filled the corridor and burned his eyes, but he was still able to watch the long looping flight path as the rocket-propelled grenade sped out of the building and flicked across a short distance to the second lumbering metal bird, striking it squarely in the cockpit.
All three of the fedayeen warriors yelled in surprise and delight as a greasy orange ball of flame engulfed the front of the Blackhawk, wrenching it out of its flight path. Yusuf saw the door gunner flung backward into the cabin just before a secondary explosion tore the main body of the helicopter in two. It dropped from the sky with sickening speed, spilling four—no, five—of its occupants out into clear air. Two of them were engulfed in flames, but the others looked like rag dolls as they fell. Exaltation and horror swirled in Yusuf’s mind. He made to run over and congratulate Ali on the fluke shot, but even as he took the first step, his comrades flew apart in front of his eyes, their bodies disintegrating as the corridor around them suddenly was chewed up by a savage storm of return fire.
The boy soldier dropped to the ground without conscious thought. He could hear the pounding
of the helicopter that had swept in immediately after the first one had gone down. It must have been very close, because the sound of its miniguns spewing thousands of rounds into the space where his comrades had stood, living and breathing just half a second ago, seemed to fill the world right out to its very edges. Though he couldn’t see it, he thought it must have been one of the small egg-shaped helicopters from the gunfire, which sounded like the ripping of a great sail. They had warned him about those metal devils. Giving no conscious thought to his actions, Yusuf moved with animal quickness, crawling through the nearest open door and getting a couple of inches of solid brickwork between himself and the lethal rain of fire. Not that he had any illusions about the safety of hiding behind a wall should the Americans turn one of their satanic cannons on him, but by hiding at least he might escape their attention.