The Color of Sand by Night
The problem is that my eyes are full of sand. And not a few errant irritating grains. No, I mean that the sheer weight of the sand I am buried under has caused my eyeballs to collapse and my ocular cavities have filled entirely with sand. Sand is pressing against my retina as I record this.
You might think that the pain would be unbearable. You would be right, at least for a while. There does, however, come a time when you have to ask yourself just what exactly 'unbearable' means. After bearing an unbearable pain for a certain number of years, say five in my case, you must acknowledge that the pain can in fact be borne, it is just tremendously unpleasant to do so. For a month or so the pain is blinding. After that, however, you may begin to be surprised by just how much tactile information your optic nerves can pick up.
If you have ever wondered how many grains of sand could fit on a human retina, rest assured that I have counted and it is more than you think.
Of course, my eyes being full of sand is merely symptomatic of the true problem: namely, that I find myself buried, face-up, thirty meters under the surface of the Sahara Desert. At least that was the true problem up until thirty seconds ago. The true problem now is that I want nothing more in the world than to kill my closest friend, Abu al Khayr bin Malik, preferably in a quiet and private manner not conducive to martyrdom. Performing this murder has become much more urgent than trivial matters such as my own continued survival.
You might ask: "Why would I want to kill my closest friend?"
It astonishes me, to tell the truth, that every human language has developed a word for the concept 'why?'
It is such a patently useless concept. I find myself doubting that a question beginning with 'why' has ever been answered to the satisfaction of the asker in the history of human discourse. Children learn very young that asking 'why?' will get them nowhere. Every 'why' question seems to beget an answer which only begs more 'why' questions. A child does not need to explore very many of these branches before discovering that they inevitably terminate in: "Because, that's the way it is."
This doesn't change with age or education. Try asking a physicist some day why Planck's constant is that particular number.
The hairiest 'whys' have always been those dealing with human intention.
"Why did you hit your sister?" the mother asks.
"I don't know," replies the boy. And who are we to say he's lying.
If you insist on asking me why I would want to kill my closest friend, I might be able to do a little better than that. I can start by telling you the reasons why I do not want to kill him. Primarily, I do not want to kill him because I love him. I love him as I have loved no other person. I love him with a deep and true loyalty and brotherhood. In fact, I suspect that I would die for him given the chance.
A very sane reason to want to kill Abu al Khayr would be if he were responsible for my being thirty metres under the Sahara with eyes full of sand. Is this true? Is he responsible? Perhaps. It is not inconceivable. However, even if he were -- even had he dug the hole and pushed me in himself -- even then I could forgive him. So strong is my love for him.
No, the reason that I want to kill Abu al Khayr bin Malik, my blood brother and closest friend, is because someone in the District of Columbia has flipped a switch. That switch has caused an encrypted radio signal to be sent out across the globe piggybacking on any natural signal it can find. That signal has in turn been received by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of microscopic receivers embedded in the brains of hundreds or thousands of unfortunates like myself the world over. This receiver has gone on to flip a tiny little switch of its own which has activated some filthy set of artificial neurons in the exact shape of a pure and overpowering desire to kill Abu al Khayr bin Malik.
Why has this someone in the District of Columbia flipped this switch? Because that's the way it is.
Ninety seconds ago I had finally resolved myself to the prospect of living out the remainder of eternity beneath the Sahara. Now, my need to be free of the sands is stronger than it has ever previously been. And at times, it has been pretty strong.
After my fifth hour under the sand I suspected my true nature. I am a soldier, at least physically. It has been forty-five years since the United States began biologically modifying those who would fight and die for their country. This was perhaps the biggest innovation in the history of the military. For the first time, they were not just building better swords and shields. The first 'enhancements' slipped in almost unnoticed. The military had been giving its men vitamin supplements for strong muscles and bones for decades. How much different was a nanite injection which would course through the body rebuilding these same muscles and bones in the very image of biological structural integrity? And who's going to complain if a few little human abilities get enhanced or added in the process? Hibernation (stasis, really) is not that much unlike sleep and certainly evolution would have given us the ability to keep the brain functioning on static and geothermal energy prevalent in the natural environment if it had thought of it first.
It had seemed odd to me at the time that, when suddenly shoved into a thirty meter deep hole, I seemed not to have broken any bones. I had sprained my ankle and was bleeding from several places but structurally I seemed miraculously intact. Indeed, I had actually begun the long slow process of climbing the sand walls of my prison when I was knocked flat on my back (hitting my head this time, losing consciousness and -- let's not forget -- leaving my eyes open to fill with sand) by the impact of that first wave of sand being poured back into the hole from the back of that dump-truck I had innocently and unquestioningly driven out here myself. Someone else would be driving it back.
Perhaps if the sand hadn't collapsed my eyes it wouldn't have taken me five hours to see the obvious truth. It was a fact that simply didn't fit. Why would anyone engineer a soldier with muscles like steel braid and bones like re-bar only to leave the eyes, the weakest chink in the armor of the body, as vulnerable as ever.
Because, I eventually realized, that's the way it is.
Oh, the torture. If Abu were here I would happily tear out his throat with my teeth to be rid of this terrible compulsion. I would weep as I did so, but no guilt or grief could be so terrible as this unscratchable itch.
Higher level brain implants never really caught on. Happily, the scientists and generals enhanced senses and memory and such, but tended to shy away from actually installing desires and systems of belief. There are experiments you can find out about if you know the channels through which to go. In the end, brainwashing of the old-fashioned boot camp sort turned out to be just as effective as hard-coded neural compulsion. It was also a lot less likely to result in litigation and public outcry.
There were rumors however (and it was the sort of rumor that only got repeated behind closed doors), that the American military had found another use for these implants: spies and assassins who didn't know they were spies and assassins.
After five hours without oxygen, when I found myself still inarguably alive, no other explanation remained. My only hope had been that thirty meters of sand would be sufficient insulation when the signal was finally sent. I would far rather die alone under Saharan sands than carry out whatever grim purpose they intended me for. But no, the receiver was far too well engineered and for far too specific a purpose to be fooled that easily.
But though the sand couldn't stop the signal, it can certainly stop me. The sand... oh, the sand. That which has stolen my sight, which has stolen my free will. For so long now, my oppressor. The sand which I expected to drive me mad long ago. I do not know whether it is natural or engineered sanity which I have improbably maintained. The sand which has been by entirety.
During my third year beneath the Sahara I did, in fact, begin to compose a poem on the topic of sand. It had grown to some two hundred pages at one point (my extraordinary verbatim memory is another thing for which, like my perfect sense of time and direction, I suspect I may have the American government to thank). Those were two hundred pages of self-pitying trash. I went over them slowly and excised every paragraph with the word 'dark' or 'lonely' in it. I slowly began paring down the ten pages I had left until my poem was finished: "The Color of Sand by Night." (that is the title of the poem, but also the entirety of its body). I never was much of a poet.
I had considered writing a sequel, but there is no time for poems now. It is absolutely imperative that I escape from my hourglass prison immediately so that I may kill the one I hold dearest. I try, for the first time in three years to stir the muscles of my body. I get a response from my toes, free to wiggle in my boots (although I can feel unpleasant cracking in the joints as they do. Trying to so much as flex any of my larger muscles is patently impossible. There isn't much energy left in this old corpse after five years without food. To be honest, I don't know what biochemical trick has even kept the water locked in my cells. If only it were under conscious control and I could will myself to dry up and become mummified. Anything! Anything at all to be rid of this compulsion. But, no. No such easy escape exists for me. Even were I free from my prison, with a gun in my hand, I could not turn the barrel upon myself. For Abu must die before I am free to do so.
Abu al Khayr's security men were selected for paranoia. And never would they let within twenty paces of him anyone born in America. American doctors would take foreign babies born in their hospitals, so the rumor goes, and turn them into unknowing and unwilling assassins. The security men were paranoid enough to believe it. Who would have thought that they weren't paranoid enough?
I was fifteen when I found myself in a British hospital with a broken leg and being treated by an American doctor.
It was our first trip to Europe, Abu and I. We were fascinated by so many things which we did not have at home. Things which seemed so simple in Britain, but which we had never seen. Milkshakes, zoos, skateboards. Our parents watched us with tight smiles as we explored this new world. But always their eyes were suspicious. It was important that we learn of these things, but equally important that we not come to love them. My love of skateboards was perhaps fleeting enough fro them. The pain of the broken leg was terrible, although not nearly so terrible as, say, an entire desert resting its tired legs upon your optic nerve.
They put me under general anaesthesia while they set the bone. I never broke another one after that.
Perhaps I should have figured it out when I was nineteen and tripped at the side of my uncle's pool while no-one else was around. I hit my head on the edge of the pool, fell in, inhaled a lungful of water and sank. It was Abu that found me. They say that he spent half an hour trying to give me CPR, based only on having seen it done on teevee. He was weeping over my body when the ambulance arrived. The doctor had already pronounced me dead when suddenly, on the emergency room table, I coughed up two liters of water and started breathing again.
"The brain can't survive that long without oxygen," he said. My parents chalked it up to the will of Allah. If only they had known.
Or perhaps they did know, eventually. Perhaps it took them seven years to figure it out, but that would explain why men who I had thought to be my loyal friends would bury me alive beneath the sands. It seems so obvious now. I had always just chalked the 'why' of it all up as: "because that's the way it is."
If this is true, I will have to be extra careful when it comes time to kill Abu al Khayr. I must assume they know I am an assassin. But I have the advantage that they think I am dead.
Of course, they have the advantage that I might as well be.
And so I am destined to spend as much of eternity trapped in amber-sand as American magic can manage. And trapped, now, not in peace but in torment that my dearest friend may still be alive.
And I wait.
Until I feel a terrible shudder. It is like an earthquake but it comes from above and to the side. A bomb? Of course! An invasion would go hand in hand with the releasing of the zombie dogs. And my subterranean prison is a mere kilometer and a half from Outpost Alif, my former home and a reasonable military target. I hardly have time to think this thought before the American invasion occurs again directly above me.
The shock wave tears much of the skin off my body, leaving me to wonder just how much gross bodily damage American nanites can see me through. My body was hardly in top shape as it is. But, what? The terrible weight is so much less. Scared to believe, I hesitate.
I am still trapped, no question. Yet the weight upon my eyes seems mercifully less. I try desperately to move my arm. There is a horrendous creaking, but no response. Oh how much more tortuous disappointment is when it follows glorious hope. Did fate not believe that my situation was painful enough, that I must instead by brought closer to the beautiful deadly light I crave, but be kept out like a moth at the window.
And I wait. It kills me, or I wish it did, but I wait.
Voices! Human voices! Can it possibly be true? After so long under the horribly insulating noise-proof blanket of sand, could my ears still work. Or am I finally going blissfully insane? I would welcome hallucinations. Welcome them dearly. But I know that my mind is whole. And these voices, these beautiful voices, are speaking a language I know. Looking for survivors. They're looking for survivors! Right here! I'm right here!
They are directly above me now. The sound of their footsteps suggests that I am a mere meter below the surface. A meter that may as well be a million. If only I could get their attention somehow, killing Abu might fall within my reach. Freedom. Freedom from my cocoon and freedom from the suffering of Abu al Khayr bin Malik's continued existence.
They are past me now. The foot-steps fading away. With a sudden horrible clarity I can see the depression in the desert beneath which I must now be buried. A massive crater created by an American bomb. Nature, I know, realized through desert winds, abhors a vacuum. I can see clearly the sands filling the crater, bringing it eventually level to the surrounding desert. Returning me to my natural depth. Forever.
Is it in me? This unnatural strength. This engineered potency, is it under my control?
I am willing every drop of energy that could possibly have survived these five years of brutal attrition. I bid the very electrical energy which sparks my synapses to realize itself as kinetic muscular force. I stop my heart, burn every available calorie, every molecule of fat, trapped anywhere in my near-mummified body and channel it all into the large muscles of my right arm. Channel it all into one single thought. UP!
Movement! I have actually achieved movement. But have I broken the surface? The epidermis has been totally stripped from my hand and with it any nerves or hair follicles which might have detected the desert air. So I listen with torn and battered eardrums. I listen to footsteps still retreating into the distance. All of my effort has been for naught. My hand lies centimeters below the surface of the desert and my would-be saviors pace away unawares. And Abu still lives.
But no! One is saying "wait, what is that?" and the footsteps are returning. The other is saying "he must certainly be dead" and I am unable to so much as wiggle a finger to convince him otherwise. But they are digging anyways. They are digging me free. They are removing those last vestiges of sand from off my face and certainly looking with horror upon my ghastly form and my eyes of sand.
With a tiny spasm of energy that comes from some hidden corner within me, I smile. And fall unconscious.
# I awake in a hospital. I can tell by the sounds and the smells. There is a needle in my arm. An I.V. I feel a long forgotten strength coming back into my body. I can't hold in a laugh.
A young male voice: "By Allah! He's awake!"
There is much scrambling and then an older voice, also male: "Can you speak, my boy?"
"Yes," I say, not really knowing for sure until I hear myself say it.
"It's a miracle" someone whispers. Yes, let them think that. There is an explosion in the distance. Then another much closer. I can feel the walls shake and some plaster fall onto my face. Very near a woman is screaming. The older voice has said something, but I couldn't hear.
"Your name! What is your name?" he repeats.
"Mohammed," I lie. Or perhaps it isn't a lie. The person I was died under the Sahara. The person I am now will need a name.
"Lazarus would be more fitting. You must have been very close to that bomb when it went off. And how long had it been since you had eaten? A week?"
"At least," I said.
"We're running out of room fast. At the rate you are recovering, we might release you tomorrow. Really, it is a bloody miracle."
"Praise be to Allah," the younger voice says.
I mouth the words "Praise be" uncertain now to whom I am praying.
There is a moment of silence and then a child begins wailing. A female voice is yelling for a doctor.
"Ten seconds!" the doctor shouts. Then, more quietly, to me: "If only I weren't so damned busy I'd keep you here much longer. You are mystery upon mystery. I found a piece of shrapnel centimeters from your brain-stem in surgery. Or, I thought it was shrapnel until I removed it," he pressed something into my hand, "two grams of plastic explosive. I don't know what your story is, but if we survive this war, you must tell it to me."
I simply nod. It only made sense that the Americans would tie off their loose ends.
"I'm sorry about your eyes," the doctor says. The woman is yelling again and I hear the doctor muttering to himself and running in the direction of the call.
I smile slightly because I'm anxious to be out of this hospital soon. I have many things to do. Abu al Khayr bin Malik is going to die. I hate the world for being a place where he must die, but the fact that he will is as inevitable as the coming of the full moon. Perhaps the bombs will take care of him first, else he must die by my hands. But he shall not be the last. There is an American doctor in England who has a death sentence. Dead also is a button-pusher in D.C. and possibly quite a few more.
I squeeze the tiny ball of destruction in my left hand. One loose end may be enough to unravel the entire tapestry.
I smile also because I'm not entirely sure that American magic can't grow me some new eyes.