The cortical implant in my head was disconnected from all networks and my Heads-Up Display was offline. There were three Cleopatras on our flight and the Crew Chief’s Operations Protocol demanded a total communications blackout. The dim red LED strips cast a gloomy aura around the Irish priest who sat across the aisle from me. Maybe the guy really was gloomy.
The only other passengers were the heavily armed Ukrainian Bravo Team and their guest, a limp bundle of broken humanity who was hooded and tied up on the floor. They could have let the poor guy sit properly. It didn’t matter because three minutes later the exit hatch opened and two Bravos pushed him – another “public enemy” – into oblivion. He never made a sound. The priest crossed himself, his lips moving silently. The Bravos stared. On the flight manifest I was listed as a nun. So I crossed myself too.
On paper, Bravo Teams were part of the AU peacekeeping contingent. In reality, they were foreign mercenaries hired by the Nigerian government to assist in the more hands-on aspects of counterinsurgency. Morale was a delicate thing and coups were commonplace. Government soldiers were getting tired of butchering their own people. Every now and then, an insurgent would get captured and interrogated. What was left after the interrogation was air dropped over insurgency territory as a lesson. But all it really did was fuel the insurgency.
Bravo Teams got their nickname from the Maiduguri Massacre when the US Special Operations teams, Alpha and Bravo, were sent to rescue two American airmen who had been shot down. The Bravo team guarded the evacuation route and when protesting students armed with clubs and machetes surrounded the Alpha team, Bravo had opened fire on everything that moved. Since then, Nigerians referred to all foreign ground troops as Bravo Teams.
I made my way to the bathroom and locked the hatch. It was easy assembling the China Doll, my custom-built submachine gun with grenade launcher. It fit neatly inside my jumpsuit, and the lack of metallic parts meant no alarms at Customs. We were 20 minutes away from the edge of the Condemned Zone. The Crew Chief would take us no further.
The grenade locked with a satisfying click and I shrugged at my reflection. You get what you pay for, and this is how far Father O’Connor’s bribe would get us. I adjusted my habit. Perhaps he found it strange being accompanied by a Chinese-Nigerian arms trafficking pirate, but the Irish priest had just followed me silently on board the covert government transport. In Nigeria money opens doors and Father O’Connor was paying to be parachuted down to Devil’s Village. From there I would continue on to my contact in Cameroon.
The Bravo Team leader was pouring over a map as I took my seat. Most of his men were either asleep or starting to doze off. Father O’Connor was just another missionary armed with a Bible and dead set on saving souls from the inferno of Nigeria’s Third Civil War. He did not need to know I was on my way to sell weapons to a Cameroonian drug cartel.
The white-knuckled grip around his rosary trembled. I gently pried the rosary from his fingers, slipping it over his head and around his neck. I finally managed to get his fat fingers squeezed into his gloves; there was a short hiss-click when they sealed with the suit’s sleeves. The gloves were the same colour and material as the dark green and black composite HALO jumpsuit. Father O’Connor’s head disappeared into his helmet.
I reached under his fibreglass chest-plate, activating the jump computer. The opaque visor turned translucent, the helmet interior shone in electric blue light. Father O’Connor’s eyes radiated fear. His lips seemed to be moving again. I stowed his inventory in the cargo shell clamped to the back of his suit and rapped my gloved knuckles against his visor. He gave a shaky thumbs up, trying to grin bravely. His breath condensed on the visor, fogging it up. The suit’s climate control sprung to life and the condensation disappeared. The digital indicators on the oxygen tanks were on 100.0%.
O’Connor’s knees buckled when the hatch opened. At 50,000 feet I didn’t have time for his wahala, so I kicked him through the exit. I thought I heard a horrified howl through his helmet over the thundering air stream.
While O’Connor’s suit system had ensured his safe landing it had not been built to deal with his sudden loss of bowel control during free fall. The stench was unbearable, so I ordered him to stay down-wind as we made our way to Devil’s Village, his head hung low in embarrassment.
“This close to the Condemned Zone nocturnal wildlife is particularly dangerous, Father. We don’t want to attract hyenas or anything. Watch where you step and be as quiet as possible.”
“Hy … ” he looked around timidly. Anxiety replaced embarrassment.
“As quiet as possible, Father.”
My night-vision goggles on, I guided us towards the Devil’s Village. Occasionally, the breeze shifted and I smelled O’Connor. Mostly I just heard his constant huffing and panting, or a sudden yelp when he tripped over a branch or tree root. Hyenas laughed in the distance.
Devil’s Village, according to government propaganda, was an insurgent outpost in the Disputed Territories at the edge of the Condemned Zone. They claimed it was home to an Islamic death cult. What drew people like Father O’Connor to the village were the stories of 612 Christian children held hostage by Devil, the leader of this terror group. The military spokesman always ranted about Devil using these Christian children as human shields, and how it made things difficult for the government in its War on Terror. The media loved the words “Devil’s Village” and “War on Terror”. If anyone should be tried for terror, it should be the media.
Devil was Issa Musa, the 16-year-old son of a farmer. Issa had returned from his father’s farm to find his village bombed by Nigerian drone strikes, unable to find his home amidst the smouldering rubble. The streets and paths had turned into blackened craters filled with body parts. The fallen buildings echoed with the moans and shrieks of people trapped in the debris.
He still had nightmares – arms sticking out of the rubble, groping around in slow motion; a woman he couldn’t recognize, impaled on a broken signpost, her face burning. In the rubble, a child wailed as it tried to pull itself free.
The drone strikes were meant for Abdelhaqq, the Al Jama’at number two. Nobody in government gave a damn about the civilians who had perished in those “surgical” air strikes. This was before the military started using Bravo Teams and intelligence was still scarce. To compensate for the lack of solid intelligence, the government decided to strike all five villages in the target area. The survivors, who were able to escape before the Army’s mop-up teams arrived, sought refuge in what later became known as Devil’s Village. They had stayed hidden in the underground grain silos near the farms for a week, before any of them dared to catch a glimpse of sunlight again.
Issa, the oldest in the village, was looked up to by the other children. Against all odds, over the years that came and went, they managed to form a self-sustaining community. Rumours of this orphan community trickled into the mainstream. People needed to be kept away from this village for the military to save face.
Then a Doctors Without Borders convoy got lost on the way to Zaria and stumbled onto Devil’s Village. In the subsequent months, the Doctors made unofficial stops to drop off clothes and tend to medical issues. Their efforts to get government and other aid agencies involved began to cast a shadow of suspicion on the official story of Devil’s Village. Something had to be done about that.
The government perpetuated the Devil myth. To an already terrified and superstitious population, they dehumanised the children and spun stories of ritual sacrifice. Nobody dared go anywhere near the forests surrounding Devil’s Village. The lie had been told for so long, it had become undeniable fact.
Father O’Connor squared his shoulders and took a couple of steps closer. For a moment I forgot about the smell. His grey hair stuck to his pale sweaty scalp, Bible defiantly raised to the night sky, eyes wide in fervour.
“BE ALERT AND OF SOBER MIND!!! YOUR ENEMY THE DEVIL PROWLS AROUND LIKE A ROARING LION LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO DEVOUR … ” he went on a tirade, then stopped as a look of confusion and disorientation washed over his face.
A couple of Spanish doctors were explaining dosages to a young boy of about 15. An angry nun stuck her head out of the warehouse at the other side of the square and glared at the madman in the costume. It was almost 10PM, and she had just started putting the children to bed.
Dusty toddlers clustered around the nun, and giggled at the awful smell wafting from the curiously dressed oyinbo man. He was upset about … something. They made funny faces at each other, covering their noses in exaggerated disgust. Quickly, their giggling turned into echoing laughter, drawing other kids from further inside the village. The Sister’s Irish accent seemed to shake O’Connor from his daze.
“This is an outrage! You will cease this madness! Immediately! Have you no decency? The children have had a long day and are to sleep!”
Father O’Connor nodded meekly.
By midnight, I was set to go. O’Connor’s fellow oyinbo had reconciled him with reality. There was no devil here. More importantly, he had paid me the rest of my fee. My cortical implant was back online and my HUD was receiving encrypted messages again. Troop movements, weather data, scans of my current area of operations, news feeds, hacked intelligence feeds. My exosuit’s system had inventory feeds and messages from everywhere. My contact in the Ministry of Justice had emailed. Normally I ignored the usual requests for Scotch whisky or Egyptian silk, but I opened it.
SUBJECT: URGENT REQUEST!
Jahida! I have been trying to reach you! My uncle in Army Intelligence traced you and Father O’Connor to a Bravo Team convoy! Please read very carefully! The mission of the Bravo Team on your flight is the ELIMINATION of Devil’s Village! They’re coming to KILL EVERYBODY! The Church requests IMMEDIATE EVACUATION of the priest! Extract Father O’Connor from the area and RETURN him safely! The Church has promised to TRIPLE!!! your usual fee. My uncle managed to modify the convoy’s flight computer. Or mission database. He sent them the wrong way. He said this will only hold THREE TO FOUR HOURS before the Artificial Intelligence discovers the corrupt data and corrects the flight!.
PLEASE HURRY! Be safe, Jahida.
I regretted opening the message. This wasn’t about whisky or silk and it was just after midnight. I was on a schedule and my Cameroonian clients were not known for their patience, infamous for the manner in which they expressed anger. Neither O’Connor nor these kids were my problem. I moved the message to Trash.
The entire village stood and stared in shocked silence.
“I’m a businesswoman. Not a soldier. Do you understand? I have no problem with you. I am a businesswoman and this is not my business.”
“You can’t just abandon us! If you’re telling us the truth then you have to do something!” O’Connor pleaded.
“And I have done something by telling you the truth. Just run, Father. You are the man of God, and you came for these children. Take them and run.”
The nuns and doctors were arguing over whether to run or hide.
Hide where? A child started crying. Soon others joined in.
Issa walked up to me. “How many Bravo, Jahida? What time will they reach here?”
His gaze was steady as I gave him all the information I had.
I gripped his arm tightly. “Issa, take these children and run. Stop wasting time.”
“Run where, Jahida? In this darkness? How? Kerosene lamps and blankets? Run to where? You cannot run from the hand of God.”
That sad smile. This boy was stupid. “These are soldiers, Issa.
This is not the hand of God.”
“God is testing us. Are we good Muslims? Are we good Christians? There are so many bad people.”
“Issa … ”
“You think because you are wearing machines, you are safe? What if God is punishing us for not stopping them? Everyday killing. And we are running. Running where?”
“You will die, Issa.”
I switched my HUD to Infrared Thermo. Half past midnight, now. Under the sullen gaze of the Father, the children and the Doctors Without Borders, I made my way out of the village, my cargo of American-made high explosive grenades attached to the loading clips of my exosuit. I’m a businesswoman and no one was paying me to face Bravos.
Issa was a good Muslim. That was his problem. He believed in God. What was worse was he got almost everybody else around him to surrender to what he referred to as “The Will of God”. Neither the Doctors nor the Father nor the nuns would get him to abandon the village and run.
It was a new moon: practically pitch dark out here in the bush. The Bravos would have no problem seeing in darkness. They would have the same Infrared Thermography as I did, or better. I pushed the children’s faces out of my mind.
There is no place in this world for the lamb, except on the dinner table of the lion. So what if the government decided these children had to die in the name of national security? This civil war was full of stories like this. What were a few more deaths? No one cared. Why should I?
I had been trekking through the darkness for about 10 minutes when the Cleopatras popped up as three yellow dots on my HUD. Speed: 359.76 knots, on a path to the green square in a field of blackness on my screen. The village. Damn them. I turned and ran back. Issa stood in the Square, flanked by his closest followers, his gentle voice clear and steady.
“Have you come to die with us, Jahida?” he asked, his melancholy eyes resting on my face.
“Get the little ones into the warehouse, Issa. You are standing around. Stop wasting my time!” I pushed him towards the nuns, who were trying to keep everybody calm.
They had gathered all the kids into the warehouse and Father O’Connor was reading to them from his Bible. The oyinbo doctors’ faces were so pale in the flickering lantern light, I wondered if perhaps they themselves needed medical attention.
I unclipped the crate of grenades from my exosuit. The Cameroonians would not be happy about this. Most likely I wouldn’t live long enough to find out. Issa and his boys gathered round, and I showed them how to activate the proximity sensor on the grenades.
“Listen! Two of you take four grenades each and hide them in the bushes along the main path, OK?” I looked from face to face to see if they understood.
The boys nodded as Issa passed them grenades.
“Go with them, Issa. Make sure the space between the grenades is not less than three cows, you hear?”
I didn’t need the three yellow dots on my HUD to tell me two of the Cleopatras were hovering at the edge of the bush, 200 metres away. The distinct low growl of their engines rode the midnight breeze. In a corner of the warehouse a child whimpered, followed by a quivering ‘Ssssshhh!’ from one of the nuns.
We had run out of time.
“Hide the grenades between those trees!” I yelled.
His smile was sad. Fatigued. Issa’s followers looked anxious.
Dedication is easy in good times.
“Jahida. We are in the hands of God.”
Panning my HUD view in a slow 360, I counted two 12-man teams in the distance. The third Cleopatra scouted the area nearby. Sporadic bursts from its forward cannons. The screams were loud enough to reach the village. Fulani herders, maybe.
Issa was rallying the troops and his followers listened attentively, their faces modulating between incomprehension, resolve and abject terror. Thirteen teenagers and I were going to face off against a 36-man Bravo Team. It would be a foolish death. A useless death. I keyed in the pass-phrase for my exosuit’s failsafe self-destruct sequence. If I were to be captured or killed, my suit would vaporize everything in a 5-metre radius. I was not going to be a prisoner again.
“Shuhada … ”
I glanced away from the approaching Bravo Team and focused on Issa’s words.
“ … and each of you, who follow me into death tonight, shall live forever with me in the Hereafter. The death of each of us will cause multiple deaths among the enemy, and there is no greater death than martyrdom … ”
When I spun my head back in their direction, Issa had pulled the pin on his grenade and was racing down the path towards the approaching death squad, now a death squad himself. The shock wave from the explosion knocked us off our feet.
On my HUD, the Bravo Teams were reduced to sixteen. Issa …
When I got up again, my legs were shaking. The exosuit compensated and I managed to run back to the warehouse. Some of Issa’s boys rushed into the bushes with their grenades, towards the gunfire and the screams of dying men. Explosions rocked the bushes. More screams. More gunfire. The rest stood silently, wide-eyed, their feeble hands clutching the high-explosive grenades.
Everyone cowered in the middle of the warehouse. The sight of them infuriated me. This is what I came back for? I toggled the proximity sensors on a batch of grenades and set them by the door. Anything that came within half a metre of the grenades would set them off. At least these people would have a quick end. I kept it simple.
All three Cleopatras converged on the village. Strobe-light flashes from the Ukrainian muzzles. Another explosion. Issa’s followers had surrounded them. The Bravos were trying to shoot their way clear. The battle was still being fought. I raised my China Doll and cut down two of the soldiers. The last boy leapt, the Bravos fired. The explosion was blinding.
The scout Bravos dropped on the scene and rapidly made their way towards the carnage. The first two Teams lay along with Issa and his brave companions amidst burning bushes and tree stumps in the deep crater.
In the clearing, I was already waiting for the scouts. I fired. Two dead bodies hit the ground as I took aim again. I fired again. The tracking sensor in my suit buzzed angrily. I had barely managed to launch my last grenade in the Bravo direction when my HUD overloaded with threat alerts.
Huts exploded and burning shrapnel set trees on fire. Six blue dots came running out of a burning hut. Children? Doctors? Bullets whizzed past my head. The scouts split into three fire teams. One still coming at me, one outflanking my left. Quick bursts of automatic fire. The blue dots stopped moving, started to fade. I was losing situational awareness too quickly. Bullets ricocheted off my exosuit.
My tracking sensor blared and this time my helmet vibrated. On my HUD a red triangle was spinning on the yellow dot, the lead Cleopatra. It was targeting me! A shell landed in front of me, sent me soaring high above the mayhem. My HUD flickered. The dots blurred, my vision was fading. My boots were on fire. I tasted blood. I was free-falling. Below, the huts burnt and two Bravos rushed towards the warehouse. Weightlessness. Flash. Fiery light. Darkness.
Birdsong dragged me back to consciousness and I blinked in the morning light. I was hanging in a tree, almost upside down, and couldn’t feel my left leg. I looked around; it was jammed in the branches while my arms dangled below. My suit armour was down to 3%. The bottom half of my HUD was still working, and my eyes adjusted to the blurry screen. The news feed spooled headlines across.
>> DEVIL’S VILLAGE RAIDED. NIGERIAN ARMY RESCUES CHRISTIAN HOSTAGES <<
A blinking red icon said my Inbox was full.
NOTE: This short story was shortlisted for the Writivism 2015 Short Story Prize, and published in Roses for Betty: The Writivism Anthology 2015