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                                                                   DATE WITH DESTINY

                                                                               by

                                                                        Jack McDevitt

 

    I woke up with a knife at my throat.

    "Easy, Mr. Nazarian." The room was dark. Shadows moved, out beyond the pale glow of streetlight that fell in bars across the bed. They drew the knife close. I tried to push away, against the pillows and the headboard.

    "Do not scream."

    I was having trouble breathing.

    Someone held a light in my eyes. Voices whispered in a strange language.

    They seized my hair and jerked my head back. "Your eyes are the wrong color, Mr. Nazarian." The accent was Arabic.

    They showed me the knife, holding it out where I could take it if I wished. It was short, with a double-edged blade, and an intricately worked hilt.

    "You can have whatever you want," I said. "I won't give you any trouble."

    "Please get dressed." They moved away from me. A light snapped on in the entry to the bathroom. There were three of them, still only shadows.

    I climbed carefully out of bed and backed against the wall. "What do you want?"

    "I will explain on the way." I couldn't tell which one was talking.

    So ended my first night in Paris. "You must have the wrong Nazarian," I said. "I'm only over here to give some advice to Air France on their stateside advertising campaign. That's all." A pair of trousers landed on the bed beside me. And a shirt. "I don't know anything about politics."

    "A common problem with Americans."

    I found my shoes and pulled them on. "Why are you doing this?"

    "Do you have a jacket, Mr. Nazarian?"

    "Yes." My voice squeaked, and they laughed.

    "Get it. It's cool in the desert at night."

    All three wore Western business suits. They waited casually while I dressed, watching with bored hostility. The one who was speaking stared at my face, not at me, but at my nose, and my ears. He was exchanging grins with the others. I knew him from somewhere. He was by far the oldest of the three, and the most relaxed. When the knife wielder wanted to hurry me along, he waved him back. "Hashim does not understand that dressing before strangers is a clumsy business."

    I tried to smile at him, hoping to win a friend.

    "On the other hand, Mr. Nazarian, time is short."

                           #

    We went down in the elevator and out through the lobby, which was empty except for the night clerk. The knife wasn't visible anywhere, and I wondered what would happen if I broke away and ran screaming into the street. Behind me, a voice whispered, "Don't."

    We went outside. The pavement was slick with rain. A black Renault slid to the curb, and stopped. Its doors opened, and I was bundled into the back seat. The man who spoke English climbed in front, the others sat on either side of me. "Where are we going?" I asked. The car pulled out into traffic and the Arabs talked to one another.

    "I have no money," I said. Would they want ransom?  I winced at the prospect of anyone demanding payment from those tight sons-of-bitches at Rand & Sabatini to get me back. And the government wouldn't even talk to terrorists. What the hell chance did I have?

    We rolled through empty streets and out into the countryside. I tried to watch where we were going, so later I could lead the gendarmes after them. But we kept making turns, and I could only think how scared I was, and anyhow all the signs were written in French. Eventually we turned off the highway altogether and drove out onto an airfield.

    A small private plane was waiting, propellors spinning slowly. Its navigation lights gleamed in the rain. 

    The man who spoke English got out of the car and gestured for me to join him. We walked through the wet grass and climbed on board the aircraft. The others stood by the car and waved as we turned around and taxied out across the field.

    A few minutes later, we were in the air, rising toward a gray-streaked horizon.

    My captor looked straight ahead. "I've seen you before," I said.

    "At a meeting of the Arab-American Friendship Society. Last April in New York." He smiled. "I was the guest speaker."

    "Kaballah," I said. 

    "Servant of the Makhir." The Makhir. Chief of State of terrorist Qurak. Bomb wielder, assassin, the man described by the President as a cancer in the Mediterranean. He'd been blowing up Americans in assorted bars and hotels for three or four years. His agents had machine-gunned Western passengers awaiting flights at Orly and Fiumicino, lobbed grenades at school buses in Israel, and pushed people off cruise ships. No Middle Eastern atrocity occurred unaccompanied by that arrogant smile, the brilliant white uniform, the defiant fist. 

    Kaballah had been introduced to us as director of the Museum of the University of Rhandyli. "My government," I said hopelessly, "will not deal for me."

    "We are aware of your President's policy, Mr. Nazarian. It makes good sense." He pushed back in his seat and closed his eyes. "Try to get some rest."

                           #

    I never closed an eye. We flew the Mediterannean in bright hard sunlight. At one point a U.S. jet approached, flew alongside, and banked away. "Tomcat," said Kaballah. He was slumped back, eyes shut, fingers laced across his stomach. "Off the Enterprise."  Later it came back, and I had a wild hope they knew I was on board. But within a few minutes it slipped away.

    We landed shortly before noon at El Hazdrin International Airport outside Rhandyli, the Makhir's Western-style capital. Official-looking Arabs took us off the plane, and escorted us quickly through customs, with much waving of IDs. Kaballah stayed with me. I was grateful for that. His face softened when he spoke to me, and he seemed uncomfortable with his role in the affair. Maybe it was my imagination, maybe I was seeing what I wanted to see. Nevertheless, he became a familiar face.

    Five or six of us piled into a limousine in front of the airport. "We are going to see the Makhir," Kaballah told me. We circled out onto a four-lane highway and turned toward Rhandyli. During that long drive, my companions watched me curiously. There was much nodding of heads and chuckling.

    Rhondyli was really two cities: a restored ancient fortress dating from Moorish times, whose minarets watched the Mediterranean, and, in an outer ring, a modern metropolis with glass towers and shining tree-lined boulevards.

    The Makhir's headquarters was located on the east side of the city, in an army compound. Machine guns looked down from the walls. Troops were everywhere, and a few tanks waited outside the front gate. The land around the installation had been cleared; no one could approach unseen. The green-and-white flag of the Republic of Qurak flew everywhere.

    We stopped at the front gate. A guard came out, looked at credentials, and did a double-take when he saw me. Kaballah spoke to him, and he waved us on.

    We passed barracks buildings, helicopter pads, and a parade ground. A chopper was on one of the pads, blades slowly rotating, awaiting two men in uniform who were running toward it.

    We stopped near a drab, whitewashed two-story building, decked with flags. Kaballah shook hands all around, and then led me inside. "This is our operational headquarters," he said.

    Typewriters rattled, and men scurried everywhere, their arms full of papers. Several officers were engaged in an intense  discussion in an alcove. Two others were directing the arrival of office furniture. Filing cabinets and bookcases. Everyone looked gloomy.

    We walked the length of a hallway, and mounted a staircase to the second floor. "In back," Kaballah said.

    "What's going on?" I asked him. "Why in hell would the Makhir want to see me?" There'd been something in the news lately about U.S. naval exercises in the Gulf of Qurak, and I had it in my head that the Makhir thought that, since I was an American citizen, I might have some influence at the White House.

    Kaballah only shook his head in good humor and kept walking. We stopped before the last office in the corridor. It was marked in Arabic. A white and gold seal depicted a bird and a palm tree. They were the same emblems that appeared on the Quraki flag. "The hawk and the date palm," Kaballah said, following my gaze. "They signify our desire for peace, and our readiness for war." He grasped the knob, and his tone changed. "You may call him 'Shah.' Speak to him only when addressed. Answer his questions fully, and in complete sentences. As politely as you can."

                           #

    The Makhir. Slayer of off-duty soldiers, of tourists in wheel-chairs, of schoolkids.

    He turned out to be a short son-of-a-bitch. And uglier in person than he was on TV: his eyes were distant, his demeanor gloomy. His thick beard almost hid the gloomy smile that was at once apologetic and irritating.

    He appraised me briefly, and nodded approvingly. "You were right, Jimar. Yes-- " He beamed. "Excellent."

    The Mediterranean moon shone through vaulted windows.  The only electric light in the room was placed behind an armchair in which the dictator had apparently been reading.  A book lay open on a nearby table. When I got close enough to see the title, I was surprised: it was Marcus Aurelius.

    He wore the white military jacket of the TV appearances. It was open at the neck, without decoration or insignia. 

    "Mr. John Nazarian." He inserted his left hand into a pocket. "I apologize for your abduction. We had little choice." 

    "Why?" I asked. Why do you have no choice?  Why do you want me in the first place?

    He turned to Kaballah. "He does not know?"

    "No, Shah. We have not told him."

    "But surely he can see for himself!" He strode behind the chair and did something to the light so that it fell full on his features. "Take a good look, John Nazarian. And tell me you don't know me."

    I had no idea what he was talking about until Kaballah whispered: "You look like him." His tone added the word Idiot.

    My God. I focused on those bleak, decadent features. The cynical eyes. The sharp white teeth, the cruel line of the jaw. "I think, if we removed your mustache," said Kaballah, "you would be quite surprised at the result."

    The Makhir waved us to chairs.  Kaballah took one, but I remained standing. "I am going to ask your assistance, Mr. Nazarian," he said.

    It was my finest moment. I summoned everything I had to face him down, to keep my voice steady. To say what needed to be said. "No. I will do nothing for you."

    His nostrils widened. "You are of our blood."

    "I'm a citizen of the United States."

    He nodded. "Not that it matters. By the way, it's not true, you know."

    "What's not true?" I asked, barely able to suppress the trembling that had started somewhere deep inside and now threatened to overwhelm me.

    "What you're thinking. I'm not guilty of the crimes your president charges me with." I recalled all those network newscasts, which came inevitably after some new outrage; the Makhir standing atop the hood of an army truck, surrounded by screaming lunatics, jamming his right fist into the air, grinning that infuriating, arrogant grin. "Would you like some refreshment?"

    I sure as hell would. "Beer," I said.

    He straightened. "Ah. I wish I could oblige you, but spirits are not included in our diet. I can offer some excellent lime water. Or if you prefer, perhaps mint tea." On cue, Two servants entered with decanters, goblets, and an assortment of cheeses, dates, and nuts.

    I glanced at Kaballah. He signaled I should take something. "No, thanks," I said.

    The servants filled three glasses. When they had withdrawn, the Makhir held his drink aloft. "Your health, Mr. Nazarian."

    "You don't look at all like me," I said.

    "On the contrary, we are quite a close match." He picked up a date, put it to his lips, and retreated to his chair. "It's really so, you know." He commented on the tastiness of the fruit, and, in a darker mood, swung to face me:  "You work for the media."

    "I am a public relations counselor."

    "Same thing." He waggled an index finger at me. "The press has not treated me fairly."

    I hesitated before responding, but I didn't like the son of a bitch very much. "The Fiumicino Massaacre," I said.  "Your fanatics shot down twenty-some people who were waiting to get on a flight to Athens."

    He waved it away. "Not so. I had no hand in those killings."

    "You admitted it!" I said. Kaballah swiveled his eyes angrily and jerked his head to one side, trying to get me to shut up.

    The Makhir crossed one knee over the other. "I took credit for it," he said.

    "It's the same."

    "No."

    "You laughed about it. I'm not sure that's not worse."

    Something flashed in his eyes. That hit home. 

    "Perhaps so," he said at last. "But you must understand Middle Eastern politics. No one controls these bands of assassins. They roam through the world taking what lives they will, venting their rage against oppressors. The West. It is your people who took their land and gave it to the Zionists! Their children starve. And you have all the warships. What would you have them do?" He lifted his glass, drained its contents, and hurled it the length of the room. It shattered against the wall. His head fell back, and his hands gripped the arms of the chair. "Well," he said after a long moment, "it doesn't matter. I will concede to you here, in the privacy of this room, that I have taken advantage of events to advance my political fortunes. I have admitted responsibility for crimes committed by others. Everyone does that! But it is my great misfortune that your government chooses to believe me. Me! They send their ships against Qurak. They would not dare challenge Syria!" He turned, and braced his jaw against his fist. "I have killed no one." His eyes rolled briefly away from me. "Well, almost no one. A few malcontents at home now and then. But very few foreigners. And then only those who royally deserved it."

    He sat unmoving so long that I thought he'd forgotten I was there. I listened to his rhythmic breathing, and to an occasional protest from Kaballah's chair. Once I heard him put his glass down.

    I broke the silence. "What do you want with me?"

    His voice went flat. "The United States Navy intends to invade our territorial waters tomorrow."

    "The Gulf of Qurak," I said.

    "I have drawn a limit, a Line of Doom, across the mouth of the Gulf. And I have told your navy, told the world, that I will meet them there. If they wish to invade my country, they wll have to kill me to do it."

    "They claim it's international waters," I said.

    "Yes. I wonder how your president would react if Quraki warships showed up in the Gulf of Mexico?"

    I shrugged. "I don't care about politics."

    "You should care, Mr. Nazarian. Because your government does terrible things in your name." He rose, and went to the window, but he did not look out. "To answer your question: the United States has announced that, at approximately ten o'clock tomorrow morning, the cruiser Fargo and an escort of six destroyers will cross into the Gulf of Qurak. I intend to leave Rhandyli at dawn in a single gunboat, Al-Mohafiz. The Defender. Two other boats will rendezvous with me, and we will meet the enemy at the Line, to engage, and to drive them off, or to accept death at their hands. As Allah wills." He was not looking at me any longer. His gaze seemed introverted, fixed on some internal tableau.

    "You'll be killed," I said.

    A glance passed between the Makhir and Kaballah.

    "It will be a magnificent moment, Mr. Nazarian. Three gunboats, armed with a few rockets and machine guns, will charge the warships. The Makhir will be on the flying bridge of Al-Mohafiz, defying the power of the United States. I've invited CNN to film the event. They will have a helicopter overhead, and we will have a camera on board the gunboat. The boats are fast. The missiles are old blackhawks. But if we can get close enough, we will kill a ship or two tomorrow."

    He looked sharply at Kaballah. "We believe," Kaballah said, "that the Americans will hesitate to fire because of the proximity of the TV crew, and the presence of a head of state on one of the gunboats. It may be enough to give us an advantage. If we can sink a United States warship with a few boats--." His eyes glittered.

    "We suspect," said the Makhir, "all this will play quite well on the newscasts." 

    "But," I repeated, addressing the Makhir, "what good is it if you don't survive?"

    "I expect to survive, Mr. Nazarian." He canted his head and watched me closely. "At the critical moment, it will not be me on the flying bridge."

    My God. "Me," I said.

    "Of course. If you live, we will pay you quite well, and send you home."

    The room began to close in. It was getting warm, and the air was very still.

    "Tomorrow," he continued, "you and I will take that gallant craft and we will ram it into the teeth of the Yankee fleet. Conduct yourself well, and your name will be inscribed on the roll of Qurak's heroes."

                           #

    Outside, as we approached a military vehicle that would take me to my temporary quarters, I told Kaballah that I'd thought it over. "I'm not going to do it," I said. 

    We were outside the mesh fence. He nodded. "You are certain?"

    "Yes," I said.

    The army truck drew up and stopped. Kaballah spoke to the driver in Arabic. The driver looked at him, looked at me, and nodded. He unholstered a .38 and handed it to Kaballah.

    Kaballah examined the weapon, assured himself it was loaded, and pointed it at me. Between the eyes. "Are you sure?"

                           #

    I got my first look at Al Mohafiz at about three a.m.

    A young sailor greeted us as we stepped onto the pier. He spoke in Arabic, and offered us dates. By then I had no appetite.

    Kaballah shook his head sadly, distressed at my attitude. "He also knows he goes to his death," he said softly when we were out of earshot. "But he understands courage." There was genuine reproach in his voice, and I felt a brief, mad twinge. 

    I turned away from him and looked morosely at the boat.

    Ah, the boat. Al-Mohafiz. The defender.

    Instrument of destiny.

    It bobbed gently in the swell, tied fore and aft to the pier. Half a dozen men were working under light bulbs, checking weapons, loading crates that presumably contained ammunition, pumping fuel in from a small tank truck, stowing lifejackets.

    "It's a fishing boat with guns," I said to Kaballah.  It didn't even look seaworthy.

    He smiled uncertainly. "It has twin engines, and it is fast. We have better craft, but I don't think the Makhir wants to lose any of them."

    A warm salt breeze rippled the water. Pennants snapped.  "Where will you be during the action?"

    "With you. The Makhir needs someone to direct the use of the on-board TV camera. And to speak with the helicopter."

    "The newsmen?"

    "Yes."

    I stared at him. He seemed reluctant to say more. "And to keep me in line," I continued for him.

    "You will be extremely visible during the climactic moments. The camera's positioned behind you, as close to the rear of the boat as we can get it. In uniform, you will be indistinguishable from the Makhir. You will be the Makhir. Consequently, if you do anything he would not do, anything at all, anything that would embarrass him, you will in that instant become a casualty." His eyes were hooded. Almost strained. "I'm sorry, Nazarian. I would not have wished it this way."

    I was surprised at the sentiment. "You'll be killed too."

    He shrugged. "These are desperate days."

    Well, it was obvious we wouldn't last long. A launcher was bolted atop the flying bridge. A missile had been loaded into it. It looked deadly enough, but I doubted the navy would let the Arabs get close enough to use it.

    Heavy machine guns thrust from behind shields on both sides of the boat. Kaballah led the way up the gangplank, and bent his head in response to a salute from one of the sailors. The crates contained small arms, hand grenades, and ammunition belts.

    Short, stubby tubes, not unlike bazookas, were clamped xxxwarfare. Their range is short, but they are silent."  Crates of CO2 canisters lay close to the weapons. 

    I stared at him, dismayed. "You might as well be throwing rocks."

                           #

    Below, in a small compartment, they produced the white uniform. "Get some sleep," said Kaballah. "But be ready to come forth when summoned. In your whites." Like Lazarus.

    He turned on his heel and went out. I was surprised to discover, when I tried the door, that it was not locked. But when I went up on deck, hostile eyes turned my way, and I retreated.

    Back in the cabin, I considered my options. Refuse to cooperate, and get shot. Go along with this mad scheme and get blown up. 

    What else?

    I considered the possibility that the cruiser would be reluctant to fire. Head of state on board a gunboat. The Makhir could be right. They might well be hesitant after the assorted disasters of the last few years. If that happened, Al Mohafiz might get close enough with the blackhawk. A lot of people could die. Theirs and ours.

    But mostly I thought about my own life, suddenly fragile in the approaching gunfire.  It got warm in the cabin.

    I opened my porthole and peered out at the Mediterranean. The stars along the eastern horizon had faded in the glare of the approaching dawn. In the distance, I heard a human voice, a brief chant floating in the still air. The call to prayer. I wondered whether prayer was all I had left.

    A few minutes later, a convoy of heavy motor vehicles approached. I was on the wrong side of the boat to see anything, but I could hear the growing murmur of a substantial crowd, and the sudden hush that fell over them when --I assumed-- the Makhir's car arrived. Then wild cheering broke out.

    Brakes squealed, doors chunked open. Luxury doors.  Mercedes doors. A band broke into a roll of drums and bugles. The crowd roared. Wind instruments sang. The boat heeled gently to starboard, the side that faced the pier. 

    Then everything went silent.

    Whitecaps slapped the hull.

    The Makhir spoke.

    And a curious thing happened. I don't know a word of Arabic. But I understood him. I felt it all. He defied the West. He would protect the sacred shores from the boot of the invader. And he would give his life, if that was required. (An angry rumble rolled through the spectators at that possibility.)

    "Good-bye, my friends. If Allah desires, we will celebrate victory tonight. Together!"

    His footsteps echoed on the gangplank. Sailors' cries rang through the crisp air, the engine turned over and caught, and mooring lines splashed into the water. A second engine started.

    The band began to play again, and a helicopter rolled in, hovered briefly overhead, and swept away out to sea.  CNN? I got a look at it, but it was too far away to distinguish markings.

    The engines surged, and Al-Mohafiz started forward, to meet whatever destiny Allah and the U.S. Navy had in mind.

                           #

    It was a lovely morning, cool and crisp, full of the smell of hardwood decks and blue water. We glided beneath a fragile silver sky, studded with cumulus.

    Life is sweet.

    I had never before held it so close. Maybe I never would again.

    An hour or so out, the sea took on a chop. The boat slowed somewhat. No hurry. I threw myself on the bunk and tried to work out a course of action that would give me some chance. When the shooting started, things would get confused very quickly. And the moment would arrive for the Makhir to grab a lifejacket and go over the side.

    It might work. Provided the first shot didn't take out Al-Muhafiz's flying bridge.

    Someone had thoughtfully left an English edition of the Koran in the cabin. I paged through, looking for a prescription that might prompt divine intervention. I found instead warnings of the common fate of Man: Wheresoever ye be, death will overtake you.

    Breakfast arrived. It consisted of tea and dates. I forced myself to sit down and eat. But I had no taste for any of it.

    I wondered whether I could fake a heart attack. What would the bastards do then? On camera: it would have to be on camera.

    Maybe I could pull it off. But no: if we returned alive to Rhandyli, they'd undoubtedly shoot me. I needed to get off the boat. Get picked up by one of the Navy ships. 

    Someone knocked.

    "Come in," I said. The knob turned and the door swung open. The Makhir stood on the threshold, rock solid against the yawing and pitching of Al-Mohafiz

    At the same moment, I caught the low rumble of another engine. Different from the gunboat's: quieter, deeper.  "I'm leaving now," he said. "From this moment on, Nazarian, you are the Makhir." His features hardened. "Don't disgrace me."

    I tried to glare back, but his eyes had no give.  Outside, a submarine was surfacing! "Do your people know you're jumping ship?"

    "They understand that I will be with them in the only way I can. They realize I cannot risk my physical existence at this point in the struggle."

    "I'd like to save my ass, too."

    "Then do it. Allah favors the brave, John Nazarian. Do not flinch in the moment of fire and you will dine with me this evening in Rhandyli." He extended his hand.

    I ignored the gesture. The sub drew alongside. It looked old, maybe a World War II diesel. When I turned back to the Makhir, Kaballah stood in his place. "Time to dress," he said. He attached a thick beard to my face. "The Americans are on their way. You will want to take a turn around the deck, familiarize yourself with the boat, before we begin."

                           #

    The crew stared at me curiously and, I thought, not without irritation. There were seven sailors on the gunboat. And the captain. And Kaballah. The sailors lounged about, staring forlornly at the sky, chewing listlessly on dates. (There was a burlap bag full of the wrinkled, dark fruit in the after part of the vessel.)

    The captain was rapier-thin, gray-bearded, sad-eyed. He looked a trifle tired. Dark lines ringed his eyes, and I did not think he was going gladly into the breach.

    Our radio operator was positioned at the rear of the flying bridge. I'd been on deck only about ten minutes when he tugged at his earphones and scribbled a message on a yellow pad. He tore off the sheet and handed it to the captain, who showed it to Kaballah. "Our planes overflew your fleet a short time ago," he explained.

    "And-- ?"

    "Flight of four. One escaped." He crumpled the piece of paper and gave it to the wind. "They are terrible weapons that your people have. They talk so much of peace. How is it possible that a peaceful nation possesses weapons of such fury?" He spat the last word.

    Two other boats joined us. They were of the same general construction as Al-Mohafiz in that both were old, and carried jury-rigged armaments. Both had launchers; one had a deck gun, and both swarmed with men carrying automatic weapons. When they saw me, they cheered and fired off a few rounds. Kaballah nodded angrily, and I smiled and waved.

    "Poor bastards. Don't they know I am not him?"

    "Their captains know. We saw no reason to inform the crews. They will be kept at sufficient distance that they will not learn the truth." He looked uncomfortable.

    "They think they're safe, don't they? As long as the Makhir is with them, no harm can come."

    "Yes. Something like that."

    We idled while the two boats took up stations about a hundred yards off either beam. Then Al-Mohafiz gunned its engines, the Makhir's personal pennants broke out on all three craft, and we roared ahead.

    "The moment of truth is on us," said Kaballah. "Your post is in the flying bridge. Stand erect. Look forward. And do not be afraid. The Almighty rides with us."

    "Right," I said.

    The radio operator was listening to something. He nodded into the phones, and spoke breathlessly to the captain. Kaballah translated for me: "A force of six destroyers and one cruiser has been sighted moving toward the Line of Doom." And, moments later: "The cruiser is the Fargo."

    The captain gave instructions to his helmsman. A sailor with a bullhorn repeated them to the other boats. All three vessels turned sharply into the wind, toward the northeast.

    "How far away are they?" I asked.

    He glanced at his watch. "About twenty minutes."

    The radio operator had become busy. "We're going to have a lot of company," said Kaballah. "Enterprise is launching Tomcats." And: "The press chopper has left Rhandyli."

    The wind screamed at us now. Our pennants snapped and war cries were blown away and Al-Mohafiz lifted out of the water. The big twin engines roared.

    Sailors took their stations at the guns; others sprawled on the forward deck with automatic weapons. Three men had dragged a couple of tarpaulins over the missile launcher. "That's not going to fool anybody," I said.

    He shrugged. "They don't know we have the blackhawks on these boats, we hope." Behind us, crewmen were trying to bolt a tripod to the deck. The TV camera lay on its side.

    The boat leapt through the waves, eager to face the gray bloodhounds that would blast it to oblivion. Crewmen loaded the air guns, packing in CO2 cannisters and small shells.

    The captain stood at the wheel. The wind sucked at him; he pulled his cap down tight and motioned me to join him. He too was eating the ubiquitous dates. Fleshy, dark sweet.

    He held one out. "They're quite good," he said.

    I took it and rolled it through my fingers. A dark stain appeared. Overhead, a jet with Navy markings flashed out of the clouds, dropped down near the surface, and ran directly at us.

    "Don't," said Kaballah, restraining me from diving for cover. "They're just looking. They want to find out who's on board."

    Somewhere, far away, I could hear rotors. A helicopter. "CNN?"

    Kaballah spoke to the radio operator, then nodded vigorously. "Yes. CNN."

    And in that moment, with the helicopter still invisible but out there somewhere, and the Navy jet already miles away and starting to climb, I thought of a way.

    The air guns. The air guns would make it possible.

    "Kaballah," I said. "I think we can survive this."

    He shook his head vigorously. No. It cannot be done.

    "We might be able to do it, and still give the Makhir everything he wants." And maybe save the skipper of the Fargo a murderous decision.

    He stared sullenly. "There is no way."

    "First thing we have to do," I looked up at the surface-to-surface missile transparent beneath its layer of canvas, "is get that out of sight. The other boats too."

    "Nazarian, if you become irrational," he hissed, "I will have to shoot you now."

    So I explained. It was a wild idea, but I had an advantage: Kaballah had no more enthusiasm for charging the warships than I did. When I'd finished, he laughed, but it was high-pitched. Nervous. Still, maybe there was a chance, and I was relieved to see him breathing a little easier. "The Makhir would be very angry," he said.

    "Why? We will do everything he wants. And he won't have to explain later how he survived."

                           #

    We lost a few minutes persuading the captain. But in the end he too decided he had nothing to lose. Then we worked frantically. Everyone on board. We ripped out the missile launcher and dropped it into the sea. We removed the heavy caliber machine guns, stowed the automatic weapons, and unloaded the air guns. "Leave the canisters," I told Kaballah.

    "If this does not work, we will all be disgraced," he grumbled.

    We directed the other boats to get the missiles out of the launchers. "That's what they'll be most scared of," I told Kaballah. "We don't want any premature shooting."

    The jet came back. It was bright and lovely in the mid-morning sun. We sent stern messages to the other boats not to fire on anyone for any reason.

    Kaballah dragged the bag of dates forward. "There will be more in the other boats," he said.

    "Get them."

                           #

    "Ahoy the boats." The voice crackled out of our radio. "This area is reserved to U. S. naval operations. Clear the area."

    "You speak English?" I asked the radio operator.

    He was a boy. Nineteen, maybe. "Yes," he said. "I speak."

    "Good. Don't answer him."

    The plane banked and swung around. "You are in a restricted area. Return to port."

    I stood away from the others so he could see me. I mustered all the dignity I could manage and stared quietly at the horizon, in the direction of the fleet. 

    Kaballah's voice: "Nazarian, we have reached the Line. This is where we meet them."

    "Okay. Turn left or something. Either way, it doesn't matter. All three boats. Keep together. We'll go about five miles, and then come back. Keep moving." I turned to the radio operator. "What's your name?"

    "Ahmad," he said. He looked scared.

    "Ahmad, see if you can raise the news chopper. They were following us a while ago, but they seem to have disappeared. And Kaballah needs a microphone."

    Ahmad produced one and handed it to him.

    "Try not to let them see who's talking." 

    "The jet may have warned them off," said Kaballah.

    I shook my head, refusing to accept the possibility. Without CNN, we were probably dead meat. "Kaballah, we need to discuss what you're going to tell them."

    The boats began a long swing to port. The jet stayed high, watching. I had no doubt the pilot was on his radio, telling the Enterprise that the Makhir was on the boat. It was news that, I suspected, would go all the way to the White House.

    They wanted him dead. Virtually everyone in the United States wanted him dead. If anyone had a public relations problem in the States, it was the defiant Quraki leader.

    A wedge of four jets appeared among the clouds to the east. Our sailors turned toward them and shaded their eyes. The planes wheeled round and began to close, just a few hundred feet off the water. The crewmen reacted by scrambling for cover. "Stand your ground," said Kaballah, gripping my wrist, trying to stand up there with me. I pushed him down, and grabbed something, I don't know what, but I held on and stayed erect while the jets screamed overhead.

    When they'd passed, Kaballah clapped his hands. But they arced around and started another run.

    "Get the camera going," I said. "Get this."

    But Kaballah was already scrambling aft. "We don't have CNN yet," he shouted over the general racket. "Ahmad? Where are they?" It was a little easier to stand up there the second time. Not much, but a little. The planes went into a sudden climb, rolled off to the north, and disappeared. 

    My crew cheered. "You are like the Makhir," Ahmad said, low enough that only I heard him. And then: "I have them. CNN."

    "Okay."  I grinned at Kaballah.  "You're on." And I took the helmsman's place at the wheel.

    Ahmad passed the mike to him. "Helicopter," he said.  "This is the Quraki gunboat Al-Mohafiz. Can you hear me?"

    "Yes, Al-Mohafiz, we hear you. This is Vince Clemens. I'm a produced for CNN."

    "Camera's running," said Ahmad. It was pointed at me, but I was careful to keep my back to it.

    "Are you getting the TV signal?" asked Kaballah.

    "We've got it," said Clemens.

    "The Makhir is with us," said Kaballah. "Can you see him?"

    "Yes. We see him quite well. May we speak with him?"

    "Not at this moment." I was hoping the Navy was monitoring this somewhere. In the planes. On the Fargo. Somewhere. Or if not, that the copter would relay the news to them. Everything depended on that. "He is determined to protect his country's borders. But because of his respect for human life, he has chosen to take his stand in an unarmed vessel."

    "I don't think I understand," said Clemens.

    We could hear the dull drone of rotors in the clouds.      One of the sailors pointed at the surface-search radar.  "Destroyers approaching," he said.

    "Because of the danger from the American fleet, the Makhir will not unnecessarily risk the lives of his crew. Nor will he injure any of the American sailors."

    Clemens: "What the hell's going on? What do you mean?"

    "Can you still see us?"

    "Yes, we've got you on our cameras."

    Good enough. I signaled the captain to order the other boats alongside. "The Makhir," continued Kaballah, "does not expect to survive this day, and he wishes the American people to know he bears them no anger. He understands that the fault lies with a president who believes the only way to settle disputes is with force."

    The original jet, which had been floating lazily above the action, dived toward the copter.

    Ahmad pressed his earphones tight. "They're warning the helicopter off. Telling them to get out of here."

    A new voice, probably from the jets: "You said one boat. There are three."

    Kaballah fell silent. Let them watch.

    The other gunboats drew alongside. Lines flew through the sunlight. Gunwales thumped. Men began to climb off the the boat. They waved as they went, and wished good fortune to the Makhir. But they looked at me.

    A couple of bags of dates landed heavily on the deck.

    Ahmad offered to stay. I was touched. "Go with your friends," I said. "Save your courage for another time."

    "I will," he returned. "And I am honored to have served one so like the Shah."

    The captain also went reluctantly. I took his place behind the wheel. At the end, only Kaballah and I remained. I was sorry about him, but there was no help for it.

    "Can we have a few words with the Makhir?" The voice was not CNN.

    We probably couldn't ignore that question any longer.  But Kaballah was ready. "This is not the time. Death approaches. It is a moment of deep religious significance. I'm sorry."

    "Just a few words."

    "It is not allowed."

    "Not allowed by whom?"

    They were persistent. I'll give them that. "By a higher Authority."

    The planes were back, but they were keeping their distance. I had no doubt the circuits between the Fargo and the White House were overloaded.

    The other boats moved away from us, turned wide arcs, and started back toward Rhandyli. I got the prow pointed toward the oncoming warships and gave her the gun.

    The chopper angled in for a good shot of the Makhir at the wheel. I tried to slide down into my jacket. But I needn't have bothered. The jets kept it from getting too close.

    "Now," I said. "This is our chance to load the air guns."

                           #

    The voices from the jets grew more insistent.

    "Turn around."

    "This area is off-limits to unauthorized ships."

    After a while more planes came. New voices.

    And the masts of the approaching destroyers: "This is the McAdams. You are in a restricted area. Return to port." 

    They came gracefully through the sliding sea, lean and gray and cold. Dish antennas rotated slowly and signal flags snapped. They executed a turn of about twenty degrees and came dead on toward us.

    One of the vessels was bigger, broader, with an extra stack and more guns. The Fargo.

    The CNN helicopter, which had been drifting in our wake, soared higher and moved off, out of the line of fire.

    I watched the detroyers.

    The masts grew, and I could see faces on the bridge, and people moving on the quarterdeck. A battery of guns on the nearest vessel swung in our direction.

    "Al-Mohafiz, you are directed to turn about and clear the area. If you do not comply, we will fire on you."

    For the benefit of the TV camera, I shook my head no. And I began to feel hopeful: they knew the name of the boat. That meant they'd been monitoring the traffic with the press chopper.

    "Acknowledge."

    One of the destroyers was moving in close. The stars and stripes fluttered from its mast. My mouth had long since gone dry. Somehow, I was on the wrong side of this. But I knew that, had things played themselves out the way the Makhir had planned, people would already be dead. Maybe some on both sides. And certainly me among them.

    The ship veered in our direction and ran at us as if it would ram. I gave it all the power we had, cut to starboard, and bounced through its wake. At the same time, we heard angry voices ordering CNN out. Clemens responded by informing whoever might be listening that CNN was recording everything, including threats.

    The Fargo looked inexpressibly deadly. I have no idea why: it did not bristle with guns and other weapons as I would have expected. But there was something lethal in its gray sleekness, in the emptiness of its decks, in the dead silence with which it sliced through the sea.

    I cut speed to about six knots.

    A new voice came over the radio. "Al-Mohafiz, you are in a naval exercise zone." The voice echoed across a half-mile or so of water. Still, there was no movement on those long, sweeping decks. Two of the forward guns bellowed. Waterspouts erupted on either side of us. The deck rocked and we got drenched. Kaballah shrieked something in Arabic.

    It took a minute to regain control. The radio voice was still warning us to clear out, when I spun the wheel and started toward the cruiser's bow.

    Clemens' voice was back: "What's happening down there?"

    "Now, Kaballah. Speak to them."

    He nodded, and leaned over close to the microphone, opening links to both the chopper and the cruiser. "Fargo," he said, "this is Al-Mohafiz. We are unarmed. This boat carries a head of state riding in silent protest against the incursion of foreign warships into Quraki home waters. We demand you leave immediately."

    The voices from the cruiser fell silent.

    There were cheers in the helicopter.

    I was trying not to watch the forward turrets, which housed the guns that had fired. They continued to track us.

    The Fargo turned sharply to starboard, trying to avoid running us down. "What's the range of the air guns again?" I asked.

    Kaballah shrugged. "I am not that familiar with them."  He shook his head. "Maybe three hundred yards."

    Another destroyer joined the pack circling us. Planes filled the sky.

    We heard Clemens' voice: "Fargo, this is CNN. Is your captain available?"

    A new voice: "I'm here, CNN. What do you want?"

    "Have you a statement to make about this action?"

    "I have nor, CNN. Mr. Clemens, are you aware that you and your network are subject to prosecution for intruding in a naval exercise?"

    "This is hardly an exercise, Captain."

    Kaballah snickered. "We may not live out the day, but I think we've found a weakness."

    The cruiser shed all forward motion and began drifting.

    I slowed to a few knots.

    Kaballah appeared beside me. H was wearing a large self-satisfied smile. "How much longer?" he whispered.

    "Close enough," I said.

    With his right hand, which was hidden by his body from the camera, he squeezed my shoulder. I set the engine to idle, and knelt beside the air gun. I had to use a crank to aim it at the Fargo. Up, and to the right. The crank didn't work well, and the barrel cluster responded slowly. During those long moments, I was acutely aware that the captain had a decision to make.

    I took the microphone. "This is the Makhir," I said. "The air gun is harmless."

    That was not precisely true. I gripped the twin triggers, and squeezed. CO2 cannisters exploded, and clusters of dates blasted across the water and landed on the decks of the Fargo.

    "I do not wish anyone injured," I said. "But I cannot avoid expressing my objections to your behavior in the strongest possible terms. Short of war."

    And with that, we fired the other air gun.

                           #

    "Possibly, John Nazarian, I should keep you on as a special advisor." The Makhir delicately lifted a strip of fried fish to his lips. His eyes never left me. They were smilng. "For psychological warfare. You made the Americans look foolish today."

    "Perhaps," I said. "I don't feel entirely comfortable  about what happened out there."

    "Good. I would lose all respect for you if you did."

    "Still," I said, "it wouldn't have worked against everyone. What would the result have been if you'd been on the bridge of the Fargo?"

    He frowned.  "Well, we'll never know, will we?  And now, I must decide," --with a swift glance at Kaballah-- "what to do with you."

    "You promised to release me."

    "That was when I didn't expect to see you again."

    "I have no interest in telling anyone that you were not on Al-Mohafiz. Even if I did, no one would believe me."

    "And why not? It is a tale that would be worth much to the news media. You would become famous."

    "Only if I was willing to lose what I've created here."

    "And what is that?"

    "A Makhir who is a true global figure.  A defender of the weak."

    "I have always been that."

    "Maybe. But I've changed the ground rules. You're going to have to fight with a different set of weapons now."  I finished off my own drink and got up. "You may have a new reputation. You might have to work a bit to live up to it."

---------------

Originally published in When the Music's Over, edited by Lewis Shiner, copyright Cryptic, Inc., 1991