Nimiri nodded, smiled. "You throw well."
Luke tried to stand upright, hit his head on the low ceiling; he seemed giddy, lost somewhere between shock and pride. "Third base, man! Fucking college!" he shouted as more yet adrenaline washed through his system. "Fuck! That fucker was huge!"
Catherine saw the snake in her mind's eye and recoiled inward, unaware she was shaking.
"It right now," Nimiri whispered in her ear. "I think it gone."
She relaxed, groped her way to the rocky floor and sat; the old man crouched nearby, watched her for a while, even as he watched Luke bounce off the walls as he came down from the shock.
"What time is it," she said after a time.
Nimiri shrugged; Luke looked at his watch: "Almost five."
"I have to call in now. Is it gone?"
"You want me to stick my head up and look?" Pattison said.
She nodded. "Please."
"Fuck." Pattison went near the entrance and looked around, then tossed a few rocks out the opening and listened.
He slowly closed the distance, rose over the rock where the snake had been -- and half expected to be hit in the face -- but he saw nothing. Rocks, red dirt, some greenish-gray grass -- but no snake.
"Clear," he said. He heard Catherine and Nimiri walk up, felt her placing the antenna on a rock clear of the entrance, then dialing the phone.
"Hello," she said to someone sitting behind a desk in an air-conditioned office a billion miles away. "Desaunier here." She listened to the voice on the other end for quite a while, then hung up and shut the unit down.
"Fuck, man, you sure didn't say much..."
"I am told they can home in on transmissions. Anyway, protests are being made in the General Assembly, but there have been denials..."
"Same song, different verse," Pattison said.
"Exactly." She sighed, looked at the young man: "An AU force will depart Nyala in the early morning. A French force is flying into Chad as we speak. They will attempt to reach us in the morning. I am to call in at midnight and they ask that we monitor the Janjaweed's location."
"Hey, sounds fucking cool to me!"
"Luke?" Nimiri interrupted.
"You must find other word. I tire of this one you use. This 'fuck'."
Catherine laughed as she put away the phone. "Nimiri, it is an Americanism. It means nothing."
"I know America. That is not America. The word he uses means nothing. Less than nothing. It is a word that tells the world 'here is a man with no self-respect'. Is that America?"
Luke looked at Nimiri: "You been to America?"
"No, but I remember an American. A man called Kennedy. I remember him talking about standing up to oppression. People all over Darfur remember this man, speak his words."
Pattison nodded. "I hope this Obama cat lives up to the standard."
"Yes," Nimiri continued. "This Obama. Where else but America could this happen? Sure this word not represent what you are?"
"I'm pretty sure, Nimiri."
"I remember Kennedy," Catherine said. "Ich bein ein Berliner! I remember. He wanted to tear down walls and take us to the stars. My God, how spectacularly we have failed that vision..."
"Hey, the opera ain't over 'til the Fat Lady sings."
Nimiri frowned, Catherine explained, then the old man looked at Luke: "I think you is fuckin' right. There is always tomorrow. Fuck 'em 'til fat lady sing."
The three of them laughed, they laughed for quite some time, but soon the sun fell away and darkness came for them.
The Janjaweed Commander looked at the bullet riddled Toyota, at the one dead, ant-covered man laid out underneath, then remembered that the helicopter had flown toward an escarpment just west of the road and he wondered... He wondered if survivors might not have escaped from this particular truck? He looked with grizzled eyes at the ground under the truck and ran his hand over impressions in the sand. More than one person had been under here; he could feel their presence even now. He walked around the truck, looked at the ground with his flashlight, saw footprints - even though it appeared someone had tried to conceal them, and he smiled. There could be no witnesses, he told himself once again.
He talked to one of his lieutenants and orders rippled out into the darkness like leaves falling on still water.
A full moon hung over the escarpment, cast bright silver light on gray rock, and the three huddled humans sat near the entrance to the cave and looked out over the valley below. The young man passed the last of the candy bars to his companions, and he opened a bottle of water and took a swig before passing it to the woman.
"It's so quiet," she said as she sifted through her bag. "Where are the sounds of animals? I can't even hear the breeze."
The old man lifted his head into the light, cocked his head as he listened: "You are correct, Lady. Too quiet. A great beast hunts in the shadows. The small hide."
"That about sums things up, Nimiri," the young man said, "for us too, don't you think?"
"Oh yes." As the resumed their patient watch she pulled two bags of salmon from her bag and began opening them up.
"I thought you said..."
"Too much salt in this. We have not enough water. But perhaps..."
"Yes," Nimiri said. "Perhaps this last supper. Understand. What is this? It stinks!"
"Fish," Catherine said, "from an ocean far away."
The old man turned away, pinched his nose: "You eat dis fish?"
"Oh yes. It's very good."
"You say so. Not me." She passed around the fish and Luke took a bite and sighed.
"Oh man, that's good."
Nimiri looked unconvinced but took a piece and sniffed it tentatively: "It smell like goat shit."
"Go ahead, Nim, try it!" Luke said, then the old man took it and chewed it.
He smiled: "Not bad. For goat shit."
Luke pulled out his last two granola bars and the old man's eyes lit up: "I guess you like chocolate, huh?"
"Oh yes. Chocolate good."
Luke broke the two bars into six pieces and passed them around, then they sat back and listened to the darkness. Shadows moved with the arcing moon, grass rustled in a light breeze as the evenings hunt got underway on the savannah just meters away.
"I wonder if they'll get to us in time?" Catherine said after some time had passed.
"The way things have been going?" Luke commented, "I doubt it."
"Have you always been so... optimistic?" she replied.
"He carries a great burden," Nimiri said. "He grows tired."
"That's me. The Burdened White Man."
"The what?" Catherine asked.
"I was thinking of Kipling. The White Man's Burden. And 'you reap what you sow'.
"Ah, 'Luke 12:24'."
"'Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?'"
"Not exactly what I had in mind," the young man replied.
"Perhaps," the old man said.
"I know what you mean, Luke."
The young man pointed to the sky: "Kipling wrote:'Take up the White Man's burden, And reap his old reward: The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard...'"
The old man opened both his hands to the heavens: "I think you should put your trust in God," then he brought them together, as if in prayer.
"God always makes things so much simpler, doesn't he?" Luke said - perhaps sarcastically.
"True," Nimiri said.
"Everything always has to have as purpose, right?" he sneered.
"So some say."
"I suppose ravens never starve to death?"
Nimiri smiled: "Death comes to all things."
"And always the ready come-back! Amazing!"
"Perhaps because God think of everything ."
Catherine had watched, listened, grown more agitated: "Religion is the cause of all human suffering, the opiate of the masses!"
"Perhaps so," the old man said. "Did God do that?"
"But everything has to have a purpose, Nimiri!" Luke interjected. "You said so yourself!"
"If religion causes suffering, then..."
"What has religion got to do with God?" Nimiri said, and the other two stopped and looked at one another.
"What?" Catherine said, perplexed.
"What has religion got to do with God?" Nimiri replied.
"I don't understand," she said.
"Did God make religion, or did man?"
"Man," Luke said.
"Ah. But man flawed. From beginning. Everything man creates flawed one way or other. Even religion. Man overcome religion if truly find way to God."
"Now there's a point of view!" the young man said.
"Nimiri?" Catherine said. "Did you ever hear of a man named Yeats?"
"Yeats. I not know name."
"Another poet, an Irishman. He wrote: 'The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.' About a time when goodness retreats and mediocrity assumes the lead. He called his poem The Second Coming."
Nimiri's eyes shone in the darkness. "Indeed. And you think time has comes?"
"Sometimes, yes, it feels that way."
"I suspect," the old man said, "it always that way. Each face that darkness."
"And become the raven."
"The what? But... why?" She looked at the old man, but he had turned away and was looking at the sky.
"Look!" the old man said as he pointed skyward. Two enormously bright lights floated by, headed toward the northeast. "The light so bright!"
Catherine turned, looked at the sky and gasped. The two objects drifted in front of the moon, yet even in front of so much light they remained fiercely bright.
"The ISS," the young man said. "And the shuttle, I think."
"The what?" Nimiri said. The lights gradually dimmed while he spoke, and soon disappeared completely.
"The International Space Station."
"A station?" Nimiri said wonderingly. "You mean... people are there?"
"Three or four, yeah. And if that was the shuttle, then seven more. That's like the, uh, train that goes to the station..."
"You are being serious?"
"Oh, yeah, they've been flying the shuttle for nearly thirty years. Since right after Apollo..."
"Yeah. Do you remember Apollo? When the men walked on the moon?"
"You heard about that, didn't you?"
"What? The Kennedy-man spoke of this. You mean, people have go there? To moon?"
The young man looked at the woman, then at the old man: "Yes. Forty years ago."
"Ah," Nimiri said. "I in prison those days." When no one spoke he continued. "You see, I killed a man."
"Really?" Catherine said uneasily.
"Yes. I was young. I home one day, find soldier top of my mother and I kill him. I taken away, taken place where told I done wrong."
"Ah," Luke said, "lawyers. You gotta love 'em."
"Lucky you weren't killed right then and there!" Catherine said.
"But a kid protecting his mother?"
"Yes," Nimiri said. "Interesting tyrant in law."
"Amen," Luke said.
"How old were you, Nimiri, when this happened?"
"Oh, Lady, am not sure. Perhaps ten years. I remember teacher told about Kennedy-man, and moon. I never believe. That such thing happen."
"Well, it did," Catherine said. "I watched it on television. I remember like it was yesterday."
"How long ago?" Nimiri asked.
"Forty years. This summer."
The old man turned and looked at the moon again.
"So. Your people walk there. How you look that not have pride in people? Your people?"
"We were capable of so much more," Catherine said, "but we turned against their ideas. The Americans make war everywhere now, even as they decay internally. It was foretold."
"Really?" Luke said. "By whom?"
"Oh, right. Now there, Nimir, was a great forecaster!"
"I not know."
"Lucky thing! First class lunatic, second class mind."
"He was not!" Catherine said. "But leave it to you Americans to go around shouting that history is dead, that Capitalism is all triumphant. Taken a look at your economy lately, asshole!"
"Don't call me an asshole, please."
Soon they were arguing and Nimiri sat back, watched for a moment, then cleared his throat: "You want consider where are," he said, "and needs be quiet."
Luke and Catherine separated, moved into separate parts of the cave.
"You act like religious peoples," Nimiri said into the darkness. "You lucky be alive and you fight. Fight, fight, fight. All you Europeans do is fight!"
He watched shadows on the wall, wondered why two so intelligent people should act so childishly, yet neither said a word. In time he heard the woman breathing heavily, the young man snoring, and he turned and watched the moon as it arced across the sky. Soon he felt his own eyes growing heavy as sleep came for him.
Then he saw something out of the corner of his eye...
...something low, gray, and quiet...
...he moved his hand slowly, found a rock, began to lift...
...as the cobra rose from the rock, coiled, began to strike...
The morning sun slanted into the cave, hit the young man on the face. He stirred, swatted a fly and opened his eyes. He saw Catherine curled up on a smooth sandy spot a few meters away and, while he sat up, he rubbed away the sandy grit that had formed by his eyes during the night. He yawned, stretched, had begun to stand when he saw Nimiri sprawled out unnaturally near the cave's entrance. Something didn't feel right and he crouched down protectively, eased over to where the woman slept. He paused when he reached her, shook her gently, kept his hand lightly over her mouth to keep her from speaking.
She woke with a start, tried to rise but he held her down and she looked up at him with wide-eyed fright in her eyes - until she saw him motion her to silence with a single pointed finger over his lips. She nodded and he released her, she tried to sit and felt his hands helping her up, then she saw him pointing at the old man by the entrance to the cave.
The old man lay perfectly still and at once she knew.
She could see his chest: no movement. None at all. No respiration.
She could, even from where she crouched, see his neck and the stillness within: no movement. No carotid pulse.
Her first impulse was to run to the old man's side, but some force gripped her, some deeper instinct held her back - and she felt the same response from Luke. He was on-guard, something menacing lurked in the shadows and he felt it too.
He pushed her back into the shadows but remained protectively in front of her even so.
They heard footsteps in that moment; sliding, grinding footsteps coming up from the rocks below. Coming up, she had no doubt, for them.
The Commander paused ten meters behind the lead tracker.
The tracker had, he saw in the low slanting sunlight, held up his fist; the man had found something of importance - perhaps even dangerous. His men stopped as one on the signal, they collectively held their breath as the tracker eased forward slowly, silently, on hands and knees.
A moment later the tracker motioned for the column to move forward slowly.
One man stepped too far and slid noisily on the scree and the Commander cursed under his breath, looked at a sergeant and made a cutting motion over his neck. The sergeant nodded and the Commander watched his men take-up positions on either side of the entrance to a deep cave. He climbed as noiselessly as a cat until he too was beside the entrance; once there he watched the tracker, listened to the silence for any telltale sign of activity deeper inside, then he looked down.
An old man lay on his side, a three meter long cobra by his side. Both were dead.
The man: several puncture wounds on his hands, face and neck.
The snake: it's head bashed-in by a rock still in the man's hand.
"The old man had balls," the Commander said quietly, and the man next to him shuddered and nodded. He stood, picked up a stone and threw it forcefully into the darkness...
"Nothing!" he said loudly in French a moment later. "Move on!"
But the Commander remained by the entrance, motioned to the sergeant by his side. "Sit here quietly, wait and watch," he whispered to the sergeant. When the Commander was sure the man understood, he too moved away quietly.
Luke looked down at his watch again. It had been a half hour at least since the column had moved off but still his instinct told him not to leave the cover of shadow.
"I really have to pee," Catherine whispered. "I think I might wet my pants if I don't."
Luke listened, cocked his head to one side when he thought he heard some movement, then he edged forward, still in shadow, and pointed at the ground, motioned Catherine to go where she stood. He heard her undoing her trousers, then water bouncing off the stone floor and running into the sand...
... then she slipped, fell backwards, cried out when her tailbone hit a sharp rock...
... he listened as she regrouped, got herself together; now he thought he heard more footsteps approaching again and he flattened himself against the side of the cave and waited.
The men weren't trying to conceal their approach this time. Dozens of guerillas were sliding noisily up the scree, taking up positions on either side of the entrance. Luke felt his pulse hammering inside his skull, found himself wondering what it would feel like to die, when...
"Venez des maintenant!"
"What did he say?" Luke whispered to Catherine.
"Come out," she whispered back.
"Venez nous ou lancer des grenades!"
"We must go now," she said, "or they throw grenades."
"Okay," he said. "Game over." He could barely see her in the darkness. "I think I would have liked to know you a lot better."
"Indeed. You ready?"
She felt her hand take his and he started forward.
"Mettez vos mains en l'air!"
"Put your hands up," she translated while she complied.
"What did you say!" Luke shouted as he inched into the light.
"Ah, you are an American?"
Luke could see a grizzled, skinny man standing in the entrance, then he saw Nimiri and the cobra. "Yeah, I'm with the New York Times. A reporter."
"Really? How nice. Get your hands where I can see them or I will remove the woman's head slowly while you watch."
Luke got his hands up. The guerilla in the entrance was some kind of leader, of that he was sure, but the man was astonishingly frightening looking. He was tall and rail thin, appeared quite old and his skin was stretched tightly over his bald head revealing every detail of the skull underneath.
"So. You're death, huh?" Luke said. "You look the part."
The guerilla laughed savagely. "I play the part well, I assure you."
"Once upon a time I went to Yale," the man said lightly.
"That figures," Luke said.
Time itself seemed to arc and hover for a moment, then the world outside the cave roared and filled with fire; a concussive blast knocked Luke backwards into Catherine and they both were flattened against the floor by repeated waves of searing, pulsating heat.
Catherine felt the air being sucked from her lungs and pinched off her nose as the napalm-fueled fire consumed every bit of low-lying oxygen from the cave, then the world turned numb and full of icy whiteness...
She woke for a moment, recognized the interior of a military helicopter and felt an IV in her left arm, then drifted off to wherever she'd been...
She woke again, this time in a bed. A hospital bed. She looked at the sky and recognized the rosy pinkness of Paris in the light and smiled, then drifted off again.
The next time she woke her son was at her side and he brightened perceptively when he saw his mother's eyes. She felt a glad fullness in her heart and smiled.
"Are you thirsty?" Stephan Desaunier asked.
She paused, rolled the question around in her mouth, then nodded her head. he brought a cup and spoon full of ice to her lips and gave her some to chew.
She nodded, tried to speak.
"Not yet, Mama. You've been out a long time."