combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2006

Combat Without War

          "Someone in this room is not a murderer."

          All of us, all five of us, stood very still, struck blind by this shattering announcement – all but one, wondering who the blameless man could be.

          Mohammed Bin-Fasal waited for the impact of his words to pass. Then he spoke kindly to the guilty.

          "Do not be afraid. We shall flower him out. An innocent man always gives himself away."

          We all knew first hand of Bin-Fasal's unrelenting intelligence. No one could deceive him for very long – just as he would continue to deceive the world forever. The man who can not be caught, he was fond of saying, is the best detective.

          I smiled whenever I remembered how he encrypted his detailed order to attack the Sears Tower in Chicago. He used a book code: ordered triplets, three numbers for each sound: page, paragraph, and word. Even if an interceptor had recognized the type of code, he would never have guessed the book.

          Bin-Fasal did not use the Koran, as any enemy would assume. I could see the book we used before us, a Christian classic: Chesterton's blazing blasphemy, The Everlasting Man, heavily annotated and earmarked. iT still lay open on his desk. This was also Mohammed's way of requiring us to read an abomination, because he knew better than the rest of us that we must know our enemy, an enemy who had been clever enough to make his way into our inner circle.

          Although Mohammed's intellect and character should have offered reassurance, the brothers Tanit and Hassen still looked very apprehensive – even cornered, one might say. Tanit was Hassen's elder brother.

          Observing this, Mohammed Bin-Fasal spoke quietly to me.

          "Record this, Zaid. There must be no dispute over what transpires this day."

          As a good soldier, I immediately complied, recording our conversation on a laptop disk. As an afterthought, I entered a command to automatically send the transcription to Control at the end of one hour.

          "Our attack upon the Sears Tower," Mohammed continued, "was only a partial success. One of you did not set the charges correctly. One of you sabotaged our sabotage. And this man must die today."

          Al-Maden, the ever silent one, was sitting very still. He and the brothers, Tanit and Hassen, had set the explosives. He spoke in a voice I had never heard before – whether with too much emotion or with too much control, I could not say.

          "Must we necessarily assume someone here is innocent? Why not an incompetent or spineless?"

          "I would never have chosen either sort of man for this mission."

          "Perhaps the timers were defective," suggested Al-Maden somewhat desperately.

          "I checked them myself," Mohammed Bin-Fasal said a little impatiently.

          "But if there is an innocent man among us," said Al-Maden, "he would not only be able to blow this cell but our entire network. The five of us all possess that intelligence."

          "Precisely," said Bin-Fasal. "That is why this man must not leave this room."

          "The northeast support did not collapse," said Al-Maden.

          "That was your assignment," said Tanit.

          "It was Hassen's." said Al-Maden very evenly.

          "Al-Madden is a liar."

          Mohammed Bin-Fasal raised one hand very slightly silencing them both. He indicated Faddam –who had said nothing so far – and myself.

          "Zaid and Faddam piloted the boat across Lake Michigan from Canada. One of them may have left the boat and disabled the charge."

          "I never left the boat," said Faddam. "But Zaid did."

          "That is not good news," said Bin-Fasal. "Because if he left, you could have as well."

          "I did not!"

          Mohammed Bin-Fasal rose to his full height and looked directly at me.

          "Where did you go, Zaid?"

          I did not answer.

          "Tell us where you went or die this day, this hour."

          I reached in my pocket and withdrew a movie receipt to a pornographic film.

          "Please look at the time on the ticket," I said. "It would not have been physically possible for me to disturb the charge."

          "Yes," said Mohammed sadly. "Your guilt is proven. But for the brothers, Tanit and Hassen, and for Al-Maden, it is an entirely different matter. We still know nothing. Tanit could be protecting his younger brother. So we cannot accept the word of two men against Al-Maden."

          Al-Maden violently objected saying that he should be assumed to be guilty until he is proven innocent.

          "Normally I would agree with you," said Bin-Fasal. "But not under such circumstances as these. The whole future of the Brotherhood of God depends entirely on what we do here today."

          Al-Maden turned to Mecca and prayed. And then, after his devotions, he made his astonishing reply: "I agree."

          With the speed not of a man but an animal, he was across the room where the pistols were laid out.

          "There is only one way I can prove my guilt," cried Al-Maden an instant before he blew apart his mind.

          After the terrible silence that followed the body's immediate collapse, the awful trajectory, the stench of gun smoke, the shock, the utter, final horror of it all, it was Mohammed who was the first to speak – to the dead man.

          "Yes, my son, you have, by this brave and sad act, proven your guilt beyond any reasonable doubt."

          Then he nodded to Faddam, who drew a hidden weapon. The brothers began to shriek like women protesting their guilt, but Faddam shot them both, Hassen and then Tanit.

          "Thank you, Faddam," said Mohammed, taking the gun from his hand. "These men were cousins. This could not have been easy for you."

          "Perhaps, it was not so hard," I said.

          "What can you mean?" Bin-Fassal asked.

          "Why would he kill the younger first?"

          There followed an eerie silence.

          "Why not?"

          "The elder should have died before his brother – that is traditional."

          "Perhaps, but this cannot be undone."

          "I can try."

          "You mean to fight him?"

          "I have that right."

          And so it came to pass that Faddam and I went out into the dessert sun and fought, fought unto death – and I the victor. The fight was terrible. I lost an eye, and, in the end, was badly mauled, bleeding from an artery.

          "I need medical attention." I said softly to our leader.

          He moved toward me and caught me as I collapsed. Then he laid me gently down, placing a pillow beneath my head.

          "Rest now, brave soldier."

          "I go to God." I whispered.

          My leader held my hand and then knelt beside me touching one knee to the floor – praying for me as if for a son. I expected nothing more, but I saw one last thing before falling asleep – Mohammed making the sign of the cross.

by David Choate
... who is a professor of mathematics with no combat experience outside of the classroom or beyond the halls of academe. His poetry ("Easter Island", "Ode to an Academic", "Song of Sums") has been published in Amelia and Defenestration; his science fiction ("The Kid Catcher", "There Came Forth She Bears") in Starwind and Space & Time; and his "Christianity and Cannibalism", a philosophical essay, in Sophia. Some of his other fine works have previously appeared in this literary magazine.

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