If I die on this piece-of-shit road, Lubna’s chances die with me. Ali leveled his shotgun at the growling tiger. In the name of God, who needs no credit rating, let me live! Even when he’d been a soldier, Ali hadn’t been very religious. But facing death brought the old invocations to mind. The sway of culture, educated Lubna would have called it. If she were here. If she could speak.
The creature stood still on the split cement, watching Ali. Nanohanced tigers had been more or less wiped out in the great hunts before the Global Credit Crusade, or so Ali had heard. I guess this is the shit end of “more or less.” More proof, as if he needed it, that traveling the Old Cairo Road on foot was as good as asking to die.
He almost thought he could hear the creature’s targeting system whir, but of course he couldn’t any more than the tiger could read the vestigial OS prompt that flashed across Ali’s supposedly deactivated retscreens.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will report for uniform inspection at 0500 hours.
Ali ignored the out-of-date message, kept his gun trained on the creature.
The tiger crouched to spring.
Ali squeezed the trigger, shouted “God is greater than credit!”
The cry of a younger man, from the days when he’d let stupid causes use him. The days before he’d met Lubna.
A sputtering spurt of shot sprayed the creature. The tiger roared, bled, and fled.
For a moment Ali just stood there panting. “Praise be to God,” he finally said to no one in particular. I’m coming, beloved. I’m going to get you your serum, and then I’m coming home.
A day later, Ali still walked the Old Cairo Road alone, the wind whipping stinging sand at him, making a mockery of his old army-issued sandmask. As he walked he thought of home–of Free Beirut and his humble house behind the jade-and-grey-marble fountain. At home a medbed hummed quietly, keeping Lubna alive even though she lay dying from the Green Devil, which one side or the other’s hover-dustings had infected her with during the GCC. At home Lubna breathed shallowly while Ali’s ex-squadmate Fatman Fahrad, the only man in the world he still trusted, stood watch over her.
Yet Ali had left on this madman’s errand–left the woman who mattered more to him than anything on Earth’s scorched surface. Serum was her only hope. But serum was devastatingly expensive, and Ali was broke. Every bit of money he had made working the hover-docks or doing security for shops had gone to prepay days on Lubna’s medbed. And there was less and less work to be had. He’d begun having dreams that made him wake up crying. Dreams of shutting down Lubna’s medbed. Of killing himself.
And then the first strange message had appeared behind his eyes.
Like God-alone-knew how many vets, Ali’s ostensibly inactive OS still garbled forth a glitchy old prompt from time to time
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will pick up your new field ablution kit after your debriefing today.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will spend your leave-time dinars wisely–at Honest Majoudi’s!
But this new message had been unlike anything Ali had ever seen. Blood-freezingly current in its subject matter.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will go to the charity-yard of the Western Mosque in Old Cairo. She will live.
Ali’s attention snapped back to the present as the wind picked up and the air grew thick with sand. As storms went, it was mild. But it still meant he’d have to stop until it blew over. He reluctantly set up the rickety rig-shelter that the Fatman had lent him. He crawled into it and lay there alone with the wail of the wind, the stink of his own body, and his exhausted, sleepless thoughts.
When the new prompt had appeared, Ali had feared he was losing his mind. More than one vet had lost theirs, had sworn that their OS had told them to slaughter their family. Ali had convinced himself that the prompt was random. An illustration of the one-in-a-trillion chance that such a message could somehow be produced by error.
But it had repeated itself. Every night for a week.
He’d told the Fatman about it, expected the grizzled old shit-talker to call him crazy. Half wanted to be called crazy. But Fahrad had shrugged and said “Beloved, I’ve seen a few things in my time. God, who needs no credit rating, can do the impossible. I don’t talk about this shit with just anyone, of course. Not these days, beloved. Religion. Hmph! But maybe you should go. Things sure ain’t gonna get any better here. And you know I’ll watch over Lubna like my own daughter.”
So now Ali found himself following a random, impossible promise. It was either this or wait for the medbed’s inevitable shutdown sequence and watch Lubna die, her skin shriveling before his eyes, her eyewhites turning bright green.
After a few hours the storm died down. Ali packed up his rig-shelter and set back to walking the ruined Old Cairo Road, chasing a digital dream.
There was foot traffic on the road now, not just the occasional hover-cluster zipping overhead. He was finally nearing the city. He had to hurry. If he was gone too long, Ali could count on the Fatman to provide a few days of coverage for Lubna. But Fahrad was as poor as Ali. Time was short.
Running out of time without knowing what I’m chasing. Ali blocked out the mocking words his own mind threw at him. He took a long sip from his canteen and quickened his pace.
Eventually, the road crested a dune and Old Cairo lay spread before him. The bustling hover-dock of Nile River Station. The silvery spires of Al-Azhar 2.0. The massive moisture pits, like aquamarine jewels against the city’s sand-brown skin. Lubna had been here once on a university trip, Ali recalled. His thoughts went to her again, to his house behind the jade-and-grey marble fountain, but he herded them back to the here-and-now. Focus. Find the Western Mosque.
The gate guards took his rifle and eyed him suspiciously, but they let him pass. As he made his way through the city, people pressed in on every side. Ali had always thought of himself as a city man. He’d laughed at various village-bumpkin-turned-soldier types back when he’d been in the army. But Old Cairo made him feel like a bumpkin. He’d never seen so many people, not even in the vibrant Free Beirut of his childhood. He blocked them out as best he could.
He walked for two hours, asking directions of a smelly fruit-seller and two different students. Finally, when dusk was dissipating into dark, he stood before the Western Mosque. It was old, and looked it. The top half of the thick red minaret had long ago been blown away by some army that hadn’t feared God. Ali passed through the high wall’s open gate into the mosque’s charity-yard, which was curiously free of paupers.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will remember to always travel with a squad mate when leaving the caravansarai.
“Peace and prosperity, brother. Can I help you?” The brown, jowly man that had snuck up on Ali’s flank was obviously one of the Imams of the Western Mosque. His middle-aged face was furrowed in scrutiny.
Ali stood there, unable to speak. He had made it to Old Cairo, to the charity-yard of the Western Mosque as the prompt had said, and now… Ali didn’t know what he hoped to find. A vial of serum, suspended in a pillar of light? The sky splitting and a great hand passing down cure-money? He was exhausted. He’d faced sandstorms and a tiger to get here. Had nearly died beneath the rot-blackened claws of toxighuls. He’d traveled for two weeks, surviving on little food and an hour’s sleep here and there. He started to wobble on his feet.
Why had he come here? Lubna was going to die and he wouldn’t even be there to hold her.
The Imam stared at Ali, still waiting for an explanation.
Ali swallowed, his cracked throat burning. “I…I…my OS. It–” his knees started to buckle and he nearly collapsed. “It told me to come here. From FreeBey. No money. Had to walk.” They were a madman’s words, and Ali hardly believed they were coming from his own mouth.
“Truly? You walked all that way? And lived to tell the tale? I didn’t know such a thing was possible.” The Imam looked at Ali with concerned distaste and put a hand on his shoulder. “Well… The charity-yard is closing tonight for cleaning, but I suppose one foreign beggar won’t get in the way too much. You can sleep in safety here, brother. And we can talk about your OS tomorrow.”
Ali felt himself fading. He needed rest. Food. Even a vet like him could only go so long.
He sank slowly to the ground and slept.
In his sleep he saw the bloody bodies of friends and children. He saw his squadmates slicing the ears off dead men. He heard a girl cry as soldiers closed in around her.
He woke screaming, as he had once done every night. His heart hammered. It had been a long time since he’d had dreams of the war. When they were first married, Lubna would soothe him and they would step into the cool night air and sit by the jade-and-grey marble fountain. Eventually, the nightmares had faded. Her slender hand on the small of his back, night after night–this had saved his life. And now he would never see her again. He had abandoned her because he thought God was talking to him. Thinking of it, his eyes began to burn with tears.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will deactivate the security scrambler on the wall before you. She will live.
Ali sucked in a shocked breath and forgot his self-pity. His pulse racing, he scrambled to his feet. He looked across the dark yard at the green-glowing instrument panel set in the mosque’s massive gate. But he did not move.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will deactivate the security scrambler on the wall before you. She will live.
The prompt flashed a second time across his retscreens. I’ve lost my mind. But even as he thought it, he walked toward the wall.
Screen-jacking had never been Ali’s specialty. But from the inside interface, the gate’s security scrambler was simple enough to shut down. Anyone who’d done an army hitch or a security detail could do it. Ali’s fingers danced over the screen, and a few seconds later it was done.
Then a chorus of angry shouts erupted and an alarm system began droning away. Two men in black dashed out of the mosque and past him, each carrying an ornate jewelry box.
By the time he decided to stop them, they had crossed the courtyard. He scrambled toward them, trying not to think about him being unarmed. Behind him, he heard the familiar clatter of weapons and body armor.
“Thanks for the help, cousin!” One of the thieves shouted at Ali. Ali was near enough to smell their sweat when they each tapped their h-belts and hover-jumped easily over the descrambled wall. Infiltrators waiting for their chance. They used me, somehow. He panicked. What have I done? His stomach sank. They’ve been using my OS all along! How and why did they call him all the way from FreeBey? He didn’t know and it didn’t matter.
I’m screwed. He had to get out of here. Somehow he had to get back to Lubna. He turned to look toward the mosque–
–And found himself staring down the barrel of the jowly Imam’s rifle. The holy man spat at Ali. “Motherless scum! Do you know how much they’ve stolen? You helped them get out, huh? And your pals left you behind to take their fall? Well, don’t worry. The police will catch them, too. You won’t face execution alone.” He kept the weapon trained on Ali’s head. Ali knew a shooter when he saw one. This was not good.
“I didn’t–” Ali started to say, but he knew it was useless.
A squad of mosque guardsmen trotted up. They scowled almost jovially as they closed in. Ali didn’t dare fight these men, who could call on more. He’d done enough security jobs himself to know they wouldn’t listen to him. At least not until after they’d beaten him. He tensed himself and took slaps and punches. He yelped, and they raked his eyes for it. He threw up and they punched him for it. His groin burned from kicks and he lost two teeth. Then he blacked out.
He woke in a cell with four men in uniforms different from the mosque guards’. Cairene police? They gave him water.
God willing, Faithful Soldier, you will report to queue B7.
Ali ignored the prompt. The men slapped him around half-heartedly and made jokes about his mother’s sexual tastes. Again,
He pushed down the angry fighter within him. If he got himself killed by these men he would never see Lubna again.
They dragged him into the dingy office of their Shaykh-Captain. The old man was scraggly and fat, but hard. A vet, unless Ali missed his guess.
“Tell me about your friends.” the Shaykh-Captain said.
Ali started to explain about being framed but then found the words wouldn’t stop. Something had been knocked loose within him these past few days. He talked and talked and told the old man the truth. All of the truth. About Lubna and the messages, about leaving Free Beirut, about the toxighuls and the tiger, the Western Mosque and the thieves.
When he was done he lowered his eyes, but he felt the old man glare at him for a few long, silent moments. Ali raised his gaze slowly and saw a sardonic smile spread over the Shaykh-Captain’s face.
“A prompt? Half the guys with an OS still get ‘em–what do they mean? Nothing. I got one that said I fucked your mother last night. Did she wake up pregnant?” The men behind Ali chuckled. In the army, Ali had hated the Cairenes and their moronic mother jokes. “Sometimes I don’t even know where the words come from,” the old man went on. “Random old satellites squawking? Some head-hacker having a laugh? Who knows? And who gives a shit? I got one a couple weeks back that told me to find some guy named Ali, who was supposed to tell me about ‘great riches lying buried beneath a jade-and-grey marble fountain.’”
For a moment, Ali listened uncomprehendingly. Then he thought his heart would stop. He did everything he could to keep his face straight as the Shaykh-Captain continued.
“Do you know how many fountains like that there are here in OC? And how many sons of bitches named Ali? What’s your name, anyway, fool?”
“My name? Uh, my name is F-fahrad, Shaykh-Captain, and I…”
“Shut up! I was saying–I told my wife about this prompt and she said I should go around the city digging up fountains. As if I don’t got enough to do here.” He gestured vaguely at a pile of textcards on his desk. “‘In the army,’ I told her, ‘I got a prompt telling me about some pills that could make my dick twice as long. Did I waste my pay on them?’” The old man gave Ali an irritated look “Y’know, you and my wife–you two fucking mystics would like each other. Maybe you could go to her old broads’ tea hour and tell them about your prompts! Maybe she’d even believe your donkey-shit story about walking here from the north.”
The Shaykh-Captain stood slowly, walked over to the wall, and pulled down an old-fashioned truncheon. “But before the teahouse, we have to take you back downstairs for a little while.”
Ali felt big, hard hands take hold of him and he knew that this was it. He was half-dead already. He couldn’t survive an Old Cairo-style interrogation. He would never see Lubna again. He had failed her, and she would die a death as horrible as anything he’d seen in the war.
Faithful Soldier, she will live.
The prompt flashed past his retscreens and he thought again of the Shaykh Captain’s words about riches and the fountain.
This was no head-hacker’s trick. No thieves’ scheme. He did not understand it, but God had spoken to him. He could not dishonor that. He had once served murderers and madmen who claimed to act in God’s name. But Lubna–brilliant, loving Lubna–had shown him that this world could hold holiness. If Ali could not see her again, if he could not save her, he could at least face his death with faith.
He made his voice as strong as he could, and he held his head high as he uttered words that would seal his fate with these men. “In the name of God, who needs no credit rating, Shaykh-Captain, do what you must. But I am not lying.”
The Shaykh-Captain’s eyes widened and a twisted smile came to his lips. “So that’s it! In the name of your mother’s pussy, you superstitious fool!” The big men behind Ali grumbled their southern disgust at the fact of Ali’s existence and started shoving him, but the old man cut them off with a hand gesture. He set down the truncheon, pulled at his dirty grey beard, assumed a mock gravity. “A genuine Free Shi’ah Anti-Crediteer. The scourge of the Global Credit Crusaders. Hard times for your kind these days, even up north, I hear.”
The Shaykh-Captain snorted, but there was something new in the man’s voice. Something almost human. “You think you’re a brave man–a martyr–to show your true colors down here, huh? Pfft. Well, you can stop stroking your own dick on that count. No one down here gives a damn about those days any more. Half this city was on your side of things once. Truth be told, my fuck-faced fool of a little brother was one of you. He kept fighting that war when everyone knew it was over. He’s dead now. A fool, like I say. Me? I faced reality. Now look at me.” The old man spread his arms as if his shabby office was a palace, his two goons gorgeous wives.
He sat on the edge of his desk and gave Ali another long look. “But you–you’re stuck in the fanatical past, huh? You know, I believe this story about following your OS is actually true. Not a robber. Just an idiot. You’re as pathetic as my brother was. A dream-chasing relic. You really walked down the OC Road?”
Ali nodded but said nothing.
A sympathetic flash lit the Shaykh-Captain’s eyes, but he quickly grimaced, as if the moment of fellow-feeling caused him physical pain. “Well, my men will call me soft, but what the fuck. You’ve had a rough enough trip down here, I suppose. Tell you what: We’ll get you a corner in steerage on a hover-cluster, okay? Those northbound flights are always half-empty anyway. Go be with your wife, asshole.”
Ali cold not quite believe what he was hearing. “Thank you! Thank you, Shaykh-Captain! In the name of–”
“In the name of your mother’s hairy tits! Shut up and take your worn old expressions back to your falling-apart city. Boys, get this butt-fucked foreigner out of my office. Give him a medpatch, maybe. Some soup. And don’t mess him up too bad, huh?”
The big men gave him a low-grade medpatch, which helped. And they fed him lentil soup and pita. Then they shoved him around again, a bit, but not enough to matter.
When they were through they hurled him into the steerage line at the hover-docks. Ali was tired and hurt and thirsty. Both his lips were split and his guts felt like jelly. But war had taught him how to hang on when there was a real chance of getting home. Riches buried beneath the jade-and-grey-marble fountain. Cure-money. Despair had weakened him, but he would find the strength to make it back to Lubna. He would watch as she woke, finally free of the disease.
Faithful Soldier, you will
The prompt cut off abruptly. Ali boarded the hover-cluster and headed home to his beloved.