The purge of Gaza began Saturday morning.
Ithir, his kidneys aching and teeth falling out, smiled warmly at his grandchildren as they played in the rubble of Asif's house. Poor Asif, he got bombed in every war - and he always rebuilt it. At least until the last war, when a bunker buster landing right on his head while he tended the garden. Not a bad way to go, all things considered.
A Hellfire missile streaked into Asif's rubble, the explosion shredding Ithir's grandchildren before the shockwave burst the old man's lungs.
High above, bearing down on the twisting slums, the flight of Apaches were loosing their ordinance and remaking the landscape in bursting columns of flame.
First, soften them up...
Just a few kilometers outside Gaza, Moshe watched the blooming explosions from the top hatch of his Merkava, field glasses hanging in his hand. Even he could feel the heat from the airstrike blasting over his face. God, it was glorious!
"I don't think they're leaving any for us," Alex called up from the metal bowels of the tank.
"The world'll never run out of Pals," Hersh said from his gunner's seat.
A gas main burst somewhere deep in the twisting slums, sending a thump through the ground beneath the tank and a massive fireball into the air. The flight of Apaches frantically broke formation to avoid getting singed. "Hot shit!" someone squealed over the radio - more out of joy than fear.
"Word's coming through," Moshe said to his crew. "We're advancing up the main road in five so look alive."
Moshe hopped down into the Merkava. His crew - Alex, Hersh, and the new loader John - all obediently went to work at their stations. Normally, the tank would be cramped up with a squad as part of its double role as personnel carrier but this operation was supposed to be different. "No boots on the ground," they’d said at the briefing. "Just keep shooting."
A good number of the tankers had been waiting a long time to hear that...
As the Apaches circled the steaming wreckage that had once been a neighborhood, Moshe's column rolled into the screaming fire pit of Gaza. They met no resistance as the tanks crunched over collapsed houses and shattered bodies.
"Damn," muttered Hersh. "You think we missed all the fun?"
"Just keep your finger on -"
An explosion rocked the side of the Merkava, rattling the crew down into their bones.
"I need visual!"
"The fuck was tha -"
Another explosion - this one on the other side. A fuse blew somewhere and the air inside the tank took on an acrid smell.
"Open the hatch! Open the fucking hatch!"
"I'm trying! Shit!" Moshe burst out of the turret hatch, streams of black smoke circling around him. Waving it away, he had just enough time to witness the little Palestinian girl scamper up the front of the tank and right into his face. Smiling, she pulled the cord on her explosive vest.
As the column stalled behind the twisted wreck of Moshe's tank, more little boys and girls flooded the Merkavas, little hands tugging at trigger chords. They clambered up onto the great war machines, smiling and giggling before blasting themselves and the dumbfounded crews to oblivion. A few in the rear tried to pull out, but the drivers refused to back up into the flanking swarm of children, no matter how explosive they were.
Buried back in the makeshift network of bunkers, Rashid watched the Junior Martyrs Brigade lighting up the Israeli line. Hardly the most popular idea he'd ever had - and Rashid had earned himself a bit of a reputation for dreaming up new ways of self-detonation - but the ever increasing rate of Zionist terror acts had silenced the loudest critics. In some cases with shrapnel.
Convincing the fence sitters took quite a bit of effort. It was when Rashid hit on the image of so many children throwing themselves at the oppressors - an image his support crews were presently streaming live all over the world - then even the Americans would recoil in horror at damned Israel.
Convincing the Junior Martyrs themselves had proved easier - much more so than the more traditional recruits. "Run up to the bad Jews and pull this string, then we'll go get ice cream." God bless the simple hearts of children.
Their path cleared by the brave Junior Martyrs, every shopkeeper and beggar left standing in Gaza converged on the stranded Israeli tanks. Boys - fourteen, fifteen, the odd elder sixteen - rushed over the metal behemoths they'd cowered from so frequently, lobbing homemade explosives that more often bounced away harmlessly or exploded while still in hand rather than hit their mark.
Fast on their heels came the wailing widows, mothers, and any woman old enough to look the part - each shadowed by a camera man. They snatched up charred remains, the still technically alive and bleeding, discarded limbs - and always turned to the camera.
"Oh my poor son!"
"Oh my poor brother!"
"Oh my poor somebody!"
Rashid followed the online views through the latest app on his smart phone. Best investment he'd ever made - that and the brief public speaking course when he visited his cousin in Florida. The whole world was now witnessing Israel's brutality. No one in good conscience could support the Zionists after seeing such horrors!
The sky lit up. Rashid winced, shielding his eyes. Did the Senior Martyrs just detonate? Dammit, he hadn't given the go code to the final wave yet! As his eyes adjusted, he saw the battlefield - the roads and slums of Gaza visible from his basement window - awash in a white fire. "What the f -" Rashid tried to say before more flames erupted directly on top of him.
* * *
"We deserve to hang for this," Ephraim muttered.
Ari admonished the elder gentleman, "Now you're being melodramatic.”
The two men continued to watch the battle unfold in the Hi-Def satellite feeds of the elaborate war room - built from heavy investment by the Americans. Graham had wanted to be present but they'd found he was easily distracted by being accompanied by female members of the IDF as his personal security. And buffets. The man loved buffets.
Another crumbling hovel burst into plumes of flame from the specialized artillery shells, scattering debris beyond the visible range, at least at this magnification.
"White phosphorous." Ephraim shook his head, looking a sickly gray. "You realize that's a war crime? You realize you're having Israelis commit the sort of crimes that -"
"Yes, you've mentioned Nuremberg before," Ari said testily. "This is different. This is defense."
Ephraim snorted derisively.
“Besides, the Americans have been using white phosphorous for years in -”
“The Americans are maudlin sociopaths,” Ephraim hissed. “They’ll bomb a wedding and expect thanks for giving the bride’s pieces a ‘proper’ funeral.”
A small child scampered through the blasted landscape, only to be flattened by a collapsing wall. Another white phosphorous shell landed nearby, temporarily blinding that section of the screen. At the numerous terminals directing UAVs and satellite guidance, the young technicians chuckled, "Yeah! Yeah!" to each other.
Ephraim stalked off. "I think I'll go shoot myself."
Ari just shook his head. The Mossad chief had been going soft in his old age. Everyone knew you couldn't reason with the Palestinians. You couldn't have peace with them, their backwards tribal mentality wouldn't allow it. They only responded to force, only respected force - and Ari had force to spare. This had been a long time coming, this final solution.
Another white phosphorous shell arched across the screen and through a window. In the explosion, flaming body parts could be seen scattering into the street. “Yeah! Yeah!”
* * *
"You really shouldn't feel so bad," the voice in Yusuf's cell said. "If they didn't squeeze it out of you, someone else would get the same treatment - and someone else and someone else and someone else..."
Yusuf had given up trying to decide whether this voice was a fellow prisoner, some sort of devil, or just the first symptom of psychosis.
"I think they're doing that now, actually," it continued. "I've been watching this for quite some time and I'm starting to suspect they just enjoy it - much like the ones who did it to them. But that doesn’t quite explain John does it? No, he's a professional. Seen his type before, always the same. Never any shortage..."
It continued like that - rambling, irreverent, some twisted commentary to the utter cock-up that Yusuf's life had become in just one day. And alwas with that rumbling, alien laughter just behind every word.
Thanks to one wire! He was certain now, Samir did it on purpose. Yusuf had never approved of his friend's interest in his Farzana - especially that time he walked in on him in the bathroom with that picture from when they'd all gone to the beach - but to go to such extremes... Yusuf suspected he might be better off in this cell. Couldn't screw things up here. And they only jammed his head into that bucket of his own piss occasionally.
"-not that they were all that pleasant themselves, but what can one expect from a tribe that insists on blood sacrifice? I never understood the appeal myself. All so messy -"
"Why are you doing this?" Yusuf whispered miserably, afraid of putting on a show for whoever monitored these cells. "I'm done! I've done enough and it's all over now. Why do you haunt me!?"
The bodiless cackling sounded so close to Yusuf's ears, so much like some scavenger animal. "Oh, it's just getting started..."
* * *
By late afternoon, the slums of Gaza were smoking ruin.
Ari looked on proudly as the satellite images danced above the war room - whole apartment blocks flattened, blood and viscera baked into the shattered asphalt, bodies blasted apart into charred and unrecognizable lumps. A fine day's work indeed!
All around him, the young technicians and old generals congratulated themselves. Except for that little snag early on, the casualties were minimal and totally within acceptable ranges. And those men and women died for something real this time, a final solution to the Palestinian problem. No more suicide bombers on crowded buses, no more shellings, no more kids throwing rocks at tanks and stirring up a PR shit-storm. Peace, Ari thought. Finally, peace - our way!
In all the jubilation, Ari didn't even realize at first that his mouth had turned out a wide, doofus grin. It took the younger folks stealing confused looks at him, clearly wondering why the usually so reserved PM looked ready to break out into song. Hell, no matter! Let them stare, let him smile, let there be rejoicing -
"Jesus Christ riding a bicycle!"
Ari jumped, spinning around and out of his reverie to face that pig-idiot Graham. Dammit, those whores were supposed to keep him occupied well into next morning! Could he sneak in a few summary executions while everyone was still on the victory high?
Graham, suit still expertly pressed if sporting a few gravy stains, staggered forward, eyes upturned to the images of genocide and his mouth gaping open. "Son of a bitch... How could you -"
"Now Senator -"
"How could you start without me!? Jesus Shit, I ain't seen any good gun-cams since the Cairo job and now... I mean goddamn!"
"Um..." Ari searched for the properly diplomatic thing to say. "...We have recordings?"
Graham shrugged, "I guess that works but damn if I woulda liked to see it all real-time. Is that what this is?" he waved to the screens. "Real time?"
Smiling proudly, Ari replied, "Indeed it is. I'm surprised, Senator. This whole package was in one of your aide shipments, remember?"
"Hehe," Graham snickered in that particularly greasy way Ari had learned too well. "Son, the United States Senate ain't exactly a book club. I haven't read anything for sixteen years, 'cept for menus!"
Ari nodded, "Of course, I should've known. Foolish of me to assume otherwise."
"Aw, I won't hold it against ya!" Graham said gleefully, slapping his meaty paw on the Prime Minister's shoulder. "Now how 'bout them recordings? And think we can get some popcorn while we watch? Hehehe!"
"There's still quite a bit to do I'm afraid," Ari said, thankful to have an excuse to again ditch this glad-handing swine. "I'm sure your handlers - your, uh, guides can help you."
Graham looked strangely put-out. Did Americans frequently bond over videos of death? "Well... Sure, I can do that..." He waved a finger playfully at Ari, "But you better be along shortly! Don't think the diplomatic part of this visit's over just yet!"
The senator's smile struck Ari as a bit too predatory. "Yes, of course. Of course! Goodbye!" And good riddance, the fat fucking pig...
As a dutiful staffer lead the American away, Ari returned his attention to the screens. They'd won the battle but he knew, even at this very moment, there would be all sorts of scare stories and hand-wringings spreading through the media - except for the pet journos still following Graham.
But a few lapdogs wouldn't help Ari contend with the full force of the BBC and particularly those bastards at Al Jazeera. They could very well bog the whole plan of operation down with their nattering - no, best to strike now and strike decisively. Ari had only shared the particulars with a few trusted generals and ministers. And Ephraim because otherwise the old goat would've just broken into Ari's desk. Speaking of, where the hell did he run off to again?
Ari grabbed one overworked aide by the arm, "Go find Mister Galil."
The aide scampered off. Ari then called the gentleman with the armored suitcase chained to his wrist - not out loud of course, just the most subtle nod. Even in the crowded war room, this particular action had to be done with the utmost discretion. Ari and the gentleman - he could never remember the man's name - stepped back into shadow, popping open the suitcase with their keys,.
"The target has been..?"
"Yes sir, just waiting for the authorization codes."
Ari nodded. Damned Ephraim had better hurry up -
"Mister Shekel!" cried the aide who'd gone to fetch the Mossad chief. "Mister Galil is dead! He shot himself!"
"Well go back and search his pockets!" Ari demanded.
* * *
"Oh no... They wouldn’t..."
Yusuf tried to wrap his arms further around his own head, hoping to drown out this damned voice. It still rattled all through the walls and deep into Yusuf’s mind.
"They couldn't... They would... Oh this will be bad..." Still with that alien laughter at the back of the voice though.
"I don't suppose you're talking to me?" Yusuf muttered, tired and bitter about the whole ordeal.
"Just wait and see... Wait and see..."
Maybe they were coming for him. Summary execution - pop pop in the back of the head. Yusuf certainly wouldn't mind at this point. He'd been all set to die just recently and had to admit he was starting to feel a bit disappointed Samir had cheated him out of Paradise. Martyrs to Jihad earned seventy-two virgins, but what did God have waiting for the well-intentioned fuck-ups?
"Not like this... No, just like this... Of course, of course..."
And over again. Whatever words this other knew, he - her? they? it? - could get annoyingly repetitive. Would it stop once he was dead, Yusuf wondered? That just might be the best thing to happen to him all day.
* * *
Seven miles from a long-abandoned kibbutz, the earth spread open and out roared the first of many ballistic missiles. Not the massive, space-traveling kind so popular through the Cold War but a much simpler design. One meant to be used. They arched out east - Beirut, Damascus, Mecca, Tehran - this had been planned so thoroughly for so long that every Arab city large enough to appear on a map was soon engulfed in radioactive fire.
As the furthest missiles began to fall on the Iranian city of Qum, the Sun high in the sky turned dim - and a blackness rolled from its edges inward, choking out all the light and life. As the nuclear blasts dimmed into the billowing mushroom clouds, all light fled from the sky. All across the world.
Looking up from Angouleme, Charlottesville, Dunedin, and one saw either the blue sky wither to utter darkness or the stars in the night sky wink out one by one...
* * *
Marie cracked open the bathroom door just wide enough to slither her head through. The noise had stopped some time ago but she'd been in no hurry to brave whatever smoking ruin all that madness had left. Oh God, what if she couldn't get a flight out of this country now? What if the dumb bastards had blown up their own airport!?
Outside, the whole world looked black and empty. Could it be night already? Had she been cowering between the bathtub and toilet that long? She opened the door wider, bathing the suite in a sickly yellow light. She switched it off, plunging everything back into darkness but cutting the glare from the windows. She could just barely make out the surrounding city, most of its lights out or blinking and sputtering into death.
She tried switching the bathroom light back on but nothing happened. Not even a popping sound and whiff of ozone to indicate the bulbs burning out - just nothing. Looking at the iPhone in her hand - alive and humming not too long ago - she found an unresponsive hunk of plastic.
Could it be one of those whadayacallits? A BMP? That thing where a nuke goes off and shorts out all the -
A nuke! Marie just barely fought off the urge to dive back into the bathroom but bathrooms with no lights always reminded her of the scary stories her brother used to tell her at night - before locking her in the bathroom after he'd unscrewed all the light bulbs.
But no, if it had been a nuke, wouldn't she be dead? How did these work anyway? She briefly wished she'd picked up a Tom Clancy book once in all those times she'd loudly dismissed him as a propagandist for militarism. Not that she'd changed her mind on that of cour -
A muted thump sounded in the distance and in the fast dimming city, Marie could see dust and debris well up from a building recently crushed by something big falling out of the sky. And that welling up of dust, it began falling back down haphazardly, as though no air currents held it up.
Marie couldn't even get out a full, "What the fu -" when more planes fell from the sky, some striking buildings, others plummeting to the screaming streets. Jetliners, turboprops, helicopters, Israeli jets - all tumbled down from the dark sky.
* * *
"This can't be happening! It can't!" Ari hissed to himself in terror as the war room shorted out and broke apart around him. They'd been toasting the missiles that landed on Iran just when all the lights and all the screens went dead and the emergency lighting provided only the dimmest flicker before themselves going dead and plunging the entire cabinet into darkness.
Weren't those assholes in maintenance supposed to change the batteries!?
Then things began shorting out. All around him, the technicians and staffers scrambled out over their bursting consoles. "Where the fuck do you think you're going!?" Ari screamed at them, not noticing the bolts holding the huge sat-feed screen popping out of the metal supports just over him. "You stay right here! Were' not done -" and the screen crashed down on the Prime Minister, splattering him across the floor of the war room...
...But Ari found himself blinking his eyes in someplace entirely new. Meager light from a few overturned but still burning bronze lamps hinted at a vast stone chamber. Pillars lined the space where Ari had landed - for lack of a better word and judging by his soreness - leading forward to the head and a great raised throne. Cracked and crumbling with a burgundy mess coating the overturned scales at its foot.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ari caught movement just behind one of the nearer pillars. "Who's there!?" he shrieked before getting control of his voice. "Show yourself!"
"Shhh!" the hidden figure hissed back. "Not so loud!"
Ari scrambled over on all fours to the pillar. On the other side crouched a middle-aged Palestinian, his clothes sporting holes indicative of a very close gunfight. "Where the hell am I?" Ari demanded, though much softer than his first outburst.
The man stared back at him, eyes clouded with naked, crazy fear. "I think you answered your own question."
Somewhere beyond the flickering lights, a scream sounded loud and shrill enough to rattle the Ari's gold fillings. It cut off short in a gurgle. "What the fuck..." Ari whispered, now mostly to himself.
"Didn't think I'd make it here, hehe," the man mumbled. "Wherever 'here' is. Is this some sort of Jewish thing?"
"Why would it be a Jewish thing!?" Ari squeaked, too terrified to really be all that offended.
"Well, you're here. And you look rich - and not in that stupid way like Americans or Europeans..." The man's voice trailed off and his head cocked up.
"What?" Ari asked, ducking his head around to see... whatever it was.
"Nice meeting you," the man said and scurried off.
Now Ari heard it - a striking or scraping against the stone floor. Like a dog's nails across wood or tile, but much slower. Deliberate, like the slinking movements of a cat.
As it came into view, Ari could see a cat wasn't far off... Mostly. The thing stood and stalked just as some huge jungle cat but it's face... Dear God, a crocodile!?
Ari managed the barest, whimpering cry as the thing lunged forward, massive reptile jaws gaping open, breathe a toxic mix of rot and viscera. It struck swiftly, deftly peeling open the hapless Prime Minister and gobbling up his heart.
* * *
After the sixth hour or so, Yusuf liked to think he'd gotten used to the pitch black cell...
"Liked to" being quite operative. "Let me out of here you Zionist cunts!" he shouted hoarsely into the steel door, wincing at the echo of his own ravaged voice. God only knew how long the power had been out - he'd tried sleeping off and on, thankful to finally have the chance to do so without guards charging in to roust him awake with flashing lights and awful music. The feeling of having slept enough, a nearly forgotten sensation, made him wonder if they'd all gone off to some new torture assignment and forgotten to let him out - or at least execute him.
Unless the point was to leave him trapped.
"Hey... You know none of that was true, right? I just told John what he wanted to know!" Worth a shot. "I made it all up. All of it! And you fell for it you stupid Jews! Haha" He laughed, with great effort and it still quickly crumpled into whooping sobs - No, can't give the bastards the satisfaction! Banging again, ignoring the sharp sting of the skin over his knuckles splitting against the steel, "Open up!"
Something thumped against the door from the other side. Yusuf stumbled back - could that have actually worked?
Something clanked... And something scrapped... And the great steel door wheezed open, buckling as one of the hinges slid from its place in the frame. A dim, misty light drifted in to illuminate only the barest edge of the floor just inside the cell.
Even that proved too bright for Yusuf's long-deprived eyes. He squinted into the dimness, seeing the outline of a tall, black figure standing between him and freedom. The figure stepped to the side to make room, "Well come on," it - he said in a voice Yusuf found skin-crawlingly familiar...
* * *
The outside world hung in a shambles. Buildings cracked and tumbled apart, brand new cars twisted in rust, and the cracked streets were littered with all manner of aircraft beneath a dead, dark sky. But no wind blew, the air had no chill - just the same sense of festering as inside the cell.
Yusuf's shoes - how nice, he now thought, the Zionists had left them on his feet through his whole incarceration - crunched into the brittle rubble as he tried to keep up with the long strides of his liberator. This man - Anpu, he'd recently learned - moved with a clear purpose and clearly had a better idea of what was going on than Yusuf. If only he'd share.
"Why did you let me out?" Yusuf asked for the umpteenth time. "How did you let me out!?"
Anpu continued to march silently.
Yusuf knew this stranger understood him - hell they'd spoken already. As little as possible it seemed. Anpu certainly wasn't the chatty sort.
Enough light remained from fast dying electric lights and smoldering wreckage for Yusuf to just barely see people scurrying through the surrounding ruin. "Did they go to war already?" he asked, not expecting an answer. "Did they lose?"
Anpu came to a halt. "Something like that," he said in that firm and strangely familiar voice. He turned to look at Yusuf - the first he'd done since first opening the cell - "They all lost. All of them."
Yusuf wanted to shout, "That's good!" but something in Anpu's voice and demeanor said that would be very inappropriate. Or simply flat-out wrong. "Well, then, um..."
Anpu sighed, "Just keep up. There might still be a way out of this."
"A way out of what?" Yusuf asked, scrambling again to keep up. "Out of the city? Out of Israel?"
"This!" Anpu said, waving one great arm around to indicate the whole rotting mess of the world. "This isn't just another of your little wars. The whole world looks like this."
"Screw the world, what about Palestine!?" Yusuf demanded, quickly losing his patience with this tall, dark stranger. "What about my sister and my mother and my aunts a -"
Anpu fixed on Yusuf with those dark, alien eyes. For the longest time he only glared, not speaking a word. Then, "...You are such simple creatures." And he resumed his march.
Yusuf remained where he stood, still unnerved by that gaze. And what did this stranger mean by "creatures?" Did he mean Palestinians? He looked much too dark to be Jewish - hell, he was even darker than an African! And did he expect Yusuf to just tag along after such treatment? What sort of self-centered, myopic -
"Slow down!" Yusuf called, scrambling to keep up.
They marched together for some time through the crumbling world. Or Anpu marched and Yusuf struggled to keep up. Even with such a brief imrisonment, he felt the weakness in his muscles once described by an uncle who’s spent years in an Israeli prison. He felt a twisting in his empty stomach and the ammonia from his own piss sweating out of his pours. How could the night air be so stagnant? How could the night last so long...
Anpu halted, turning back to see Yusuf stumbling along, further and further behind. Anpu heaved a sigh, "We'll rest... For now."
Yusuf nodded, crashing down at what appeared to be the softest spot. After wheezing and fighting back the urge to vomit, he asked, "Wh-huh... Where are we going?"
"Gaza," Anpu said, still standing ramrod straight like some obsidian statue. "Don't get excited. There's someone there who might be able to help." He added, with some regret, "Along with you..."
"M-huh... Me-hh?" Yusuf wheezed out. Damn did he need to exercise more. One of those things he'd like to blame on not expecting to be around long enough for but even before all that -
"It's not that you're so important," Anpu continued, more to himself than to Yusuf. "But you're... convenient may be the word."
Seeing the dull, confused look on Yusuf's face, Anpu continued. "You know it's one in the afternoon? Right here, right now? And you see the Sun is gone - well, how could you not... And I do mean gone. Dead. Devoured." Anpu again waved a hand around, indicating the dark world, "That's why all you know is falling apart now. And why I had to take what I could get if any of this is going to be fixed..."
Yusuf shook his head. "No, wait - wait! What do you mean 'devoured?' How can the damned Sun be devoured!?"
"You people," Anpu grumbled. "You really don't know anything anymore, do you?"
The strange man sighed and leaned back in the rubble. "There's a balance to all things... Or at least there was... You used to understand that." He didn't seem to mean "you" in the singular sense. "But that's all broken now. Too many dead or blasted clear off the planet. I warned all of them it was coming one day - they haven't spent as much time with you lot as I have. They think I'm exaggerating, think all those snarls in the walls just happen... But I suppose it wouldn't have done any good. Every time someone tries to show you the way, you find some new and exciting way to kill them..."
Anpu looked directly into Yusuf's uncomprehending eyes. "Ra is dead." He pointed straight up at the sky, "Ra is dead! The source of all light and life is gone because you all had to just keep killing each other, had to keep spreading misery and suffering and letting the damned Serpent grow stronger with every generation!"
Yusuf, taken aback some, sputtered, "What in God's name -"
"Yes! Exactly!" Anpu proclaimed, leaping up. "And not just any god - the God! Not that fiendish little Hebrew deity or whatever absurd caricature of him you pray to. Ra, the Sun! Light and life and now so much refuse spitting out the back of Apep!"
The dark man eased back down into his seat. "But there might be a way to put things right again. Might... If we can -"
"You blasphemous camel's ass!" Yusuf shouted. He'd missed those last, diplomatic words Anpu spoke, being too focused on the dark man's - the infidel's words. "What's all this blathering about Ra and the Sun and gods!? There is only one God! I don't know what you expected of me but -" Yusuf stumbled to his feet, too enraged to continue coherently.
As he scrambled over the rubble, searching for something resembling a road, his head spinning with offense and the desperate desire to find Farzana and his mother safe, Yusuf heard Anpu shout back from a distance, "Yeah? Well my dick in your religion!"
* * *
Yusuf staggered beneath the charcoal sky. Had he walked for ten minutes or ten miles? He couldn't tell, not under all that unchanging darkness. And the air... it tasted so stale. Even more so than that cramped little cell.
This raised the larger question of how he would find his way back to Gaza. All the buses were either blown out or sinking into the cracked asphalt. And for that matter, which direction. Maybe he'd overreacted... Maybe that dark stranger really did have some clear idea of what had happened, despite his blasphemous way of explaining. Maybe Yusuf should turn back and -
"You!" a voice barked far off to his right.
Yusuf spun around to face a young man - not much older than himself - in IDF fatigues and gripping a Kalashnikov... like a club?
"You a Pal!?" the young soldier demanded in English.
"Uh... No?" Yusuf said, eyeing the "club" wearily.
The soldier eyed him for a moment, seemingly considering Yusuf's shade of semitic. "Alright then," he continued, still thankfully in English. He relaxed the rifle, "You better stick with me. Crazy times right now."
He motioned for Yusuf to follow him, marching off to... Well, Yusuf really couldn't tell one direction from another. Though he doubted this young soldier would be taking him home to Gaza.
"What's your name?" the soldier asked.
Still eyeing that Kalashnikov, Yusuf replied, "Uh, Joseph!"
"I'm Avner," the soldier replied. "I don't suppose you've heard about what the hell's going on?" He held up a cell phone, "I haven't been able to get any bars since the sky went dark."
"No... No, I'm afraid not." Yusuf didn't expect this Jew would be any more receptive to Anpu's explanation than he'd been himself.
Avner snorted, pressing down one nostril and shooting a booger out the other without breaking stride. "Meh, I figure it's one of those new American weapons. Those cunts spend all their time cooking up doomsday bombs these days..."
"But aren't you -" Yusuf began before catching himself, "I mean we - we're allies? With the Americans?"
Avner chuckled a little. "We're allies as long as they can deport Jews here these days! They've got some weird Christian brainwave going these days - mostly just casting stones at each other. Their aim's just not that good." Avner looked up into the dead sky, "And they're big stones..."
That sounded much more plausible than Anpu's explanation. Yusuf had never put that much stock in many of the conspiracy theories surrounding America - that one about air-conditioned body armor was just laughable. But he knew damn well where the damn Israelis got all of their fancier damned weapons...
Which Avner didn't have. And why in the hell did he carry that rifle on his shoulder with one hand gripping the barrel, like a cricket bat?
As they rounded an overturned humvee, Yusuf felt his nether regions clench in terror at the sight that greeted him - at least a dozen IDF troopers, sitting around a pile of hastily collected valuables, chattering with that amiable forcefulness of young men. All clutched old Kalashnikovs, rusty pipes, and in one case an actual cricket bat! A few looked up as Avner lead Yusuf into this little camp but the rest were blissfully caught up in their own reveries.
"-like bathwater. Why'd we ever knock it over in the first place?"
"You said you were thirsty, right? Said mom and dad never let you drink beer before?"
"Shikse! We need some goddamn shikse!"
"We need guns that'll work first..."
The one with the cricket bat approached Avner, "Who's this?"
"Says he's Joseph," Avner replied. "I found him out in the wreckage -"
"So what, you brought him home with you? Are we a fucking shelter?"
Despite their initially casual tone with each other, Yusuf quickly guessed from his bearing and Avner's submissive posture that this had to be the commander... Who didn't look more than a year older than Yusuf or Avner.
"I just figured - I mean, sir, I understood our -"
"You understand fuck-all, Avner," the commanding officer said dismissively. Then, to Yusuf, "So can you do anything useful?"
"Can he find us some shikse?" one of the soldiers called.
"Shut it!" barked the commander.
Yusuf felt himself sweating under all those Israeli eyes. "Well, um... I..." Damned humanities education. "I can speak French?"
A few of the soldiers cackled. "Hey, maybe he can get us some shikse!"
The commander didn't look quite as amused. "If you said you speak Arabic, then I could use you."
"Oh, I do!" Yusuf said, before nervously adding, "That is, uh, a little bit."
"Good enough." The commander turned back to the other soldiers. "We're still on-mission, people! Lev, Rosen - I want both squads up and moving by twos in five mikes." Turning to Yusuf, "You're my new translator. You remember your Service, right?"
Shit! Goddamn Israeli conscription! "Um, asthma?" Yusuf mumbled lamely.
The commander's eyes narrowed. "You a Druze?"
He scowled. "Fucking figures... Right, you stay close to me and do exactly as I say. Exactly."
Yusuf nodded. He could do that - he could do damn near anything if it meant getting home to see Farzana and Mom without some Jew shooting him. He fell into step behind the commander, the others already up and moving about with a practiced - if somewhat stiff - professionalism.
So again Yusuf found himself moving through this tomb world - now along with other young men who would kill him in a second if he made one mistake. He could feel the stink of his brief confinement but either it fit in with the strangely stagnant air... or his new “friends” stank even worse and couldn’t tell. The darkness pressed in all around him, his feet throbbed with every other step, his stomach sucked inward at its own emptiness...
The commander held up his hand after some time, hissing, "Hold! What was that?"
"Uh, that was me," Yusuf said softly. "I haven't eaten in a while..."
The commander didn't say anything, just grumbled and motioned for everyone to keep moving. How they obsessed over every little inch of ground covered! Yusuf began to wonder if they really knew something he didn't or if they were simply so green they still did everything strictly by the book. Not that Yusuf had much military experience. Paramilitary, sort of, and not very successfully...
As they stalked through a jumble of abandoned cars, the commander cast a glance back at Yusuf. "Was that you again?"
The commander's eyes went wide - "Contact!"
The soldiers tightened their grips on their various weapons, raising them up, ready to thrash the living shit out of whatever should come into view -
Shuffling between the cars came a girl, no older than fourteen.
"Shikse!" one of the young soldiers said excitedly.
"Steady on!" the commander barked - though his voice shook some.
"C'mon, Lieutenant!" another chimed in. "You promised we could!"
The commander - or lieutenant as it were - tried to protest. "That was - we're still on mission! We've got a job to do!"
"For what? For who?"
"I only had two more weeks anyway -"
The girl - apparently Israeli as she understood the word "shikse" better than Yusuf - had scampered over the hood of one derelict sedan and between two more, receding into the decaying labyrinth.
The unit lost all coherence then. Even Avner chased after the girl. All of them did, stumbling and crashing, each and every one eager to be first to claim the prize.
"Fuck!" the lieutenant chased after them, still trying to menace them back into some sense of military discipline. He caught up with one - Rosen maybe? - and deftly struck him in the back of the knee with his cricket bat. "What do you think you're gonna do anyway!?" He shouted at the other soldier, rolling on the ground in pain. "You think the rifles are the only thing that stopped working!"
Yusuf took the opportunity to edge away from the soldiers, back into the tangled mess of cars. As the lieutenant ceased to berate Rosen - responding to distant cries of, "Aww dammit! It doesn't work!" - Yusuf ducked down and started scrambling through the spaces between the cars, low enough to escape notice.
Where to now? How to get back to Gaza? Most importantly - where to find some food!? Yusuf scrapped about in that dust and debris for some time, only occasionally popping his head above the cars to scan for anymore soldiers. An undisciplined and adrift IDF was much more nerve-wracking than the jackboots he'd been watching since childhood...
Something on the wind - was there really wind anymore? He'd been out so long, Yusuf had grown accustomed to the stagnancy of this new open air. But still some smell, some bland but still enticing smell wafted towards him from someplace not too far off.
On the sidewalk sat an overturned falafel cart. Over the cart hunched a heavy, pink-face man with a fine suit jacket but no pants - though Yusuf was relieved he still had on boxer shorts. He ruffled through the cart, yanking out clumps of falafel, little tzatziki packets, and cramming them in his mouth. Crumbs and spittle scattered out all over.
Yusuf remained hunched just behind a car. Did he risk communicating with another survivor? Survivor of what he still wasn't really sure - but he hadn't yet met anyone all that friendly. This wheezing lump of a man might just decide to try a little meat -
The man's head jerked up, his nose loudly snorting. "Who' there!?" he yelled through a mouth full of old falafel. "Thow yothelf!" He stood up, gripping a broom handle in one hand, the other protecting - or manhandling? - his crotch. "Gothamn fuckinth thavathes! I'll fuck y'all in the ath! I'll -"
A hunk of rubble sailed through the air, nailing him just above the temple. As he spun about, his knees buckling, Yusuf could see an American flag pin on the front of his jacket. Was he the ambassador!?
"Bullseye!" someone shouted - from the same direction as the brick. Another man, a much younger man, came scampering through the ruins to where the fat American had been gobbling up all the food. "Yes! Got you, you goat-sucking bastard!"
To be concluded...