They had hours alone to think about it. A smart tactic, Jahni thought. Anticipation is part of the softening up process. As the hours passed the tiny windows, which turned out to actually be vents, grew bright with sunlight, beams of it piercing the room, a few dust motes dancing in it. Not enough to fully illuminate nor warm the room, it remained dim and a chill clung to the stone walls and floor.
Jahni even slept. He saw Madari staring at him when he woke, as if amazed a man about to be tortured could lay his head down and sleep. But as much as his mind wanted to turn around and around like a dog chasing its tail, his body was exhausted.
Madari didn’t have time to ask him the obvious question, “how can you sleep at a time like this?” because it was voices outside the door which woke Jahni and a second later, the door opened. He scrambled up, old instincts making him stand in front of Madari and push him back towards a corner. Protect the commander
But now a horror loomed he couldn’t protect Madari from the way he once had. It would be even worse now. Not only his commander and friend, but his lover. How could he stand to see the man who meant all those things to him tortured? He dropped into a fighting stance as they approached.
One lunged at him suddenly, using a Taser again. Not from a distance this time, but rather rammed into his gut, throwing him backwards and to the ground. The stunning waves went on as men loomed around him, and he heard Madari yelling as more of them went after him.
Too many men. Even when the Taser turned off, freeing his body, he could do no more than struggle in their grip as they dragged him up and out of the room.
A different room than the last one they’d been brought to. No mats on the floor. Tall windows with blinds not only drawn but taped around the edges so not a chink of light showed. Four bare light bulbs shone from an elaborate but unshaded light fitting over their heads. They were strong, making a bright glare and deep, black shadows.
Saifullah waited there for them.
“Be careful,” he said as his men wrestled Madari and Jahni into a pair of straight-backed chairs. “Don’t mark their faces.”
Jahni knew that wasn’t for any kind of consideration for their looks. If they agreed to make the video and looked battered, not only did it make the coercion obvious, it might evoke pity and anger in those viewing it.
No, Saifullah would want them looking their best for their video debut, which made Jahni want to head butt the nearest man’s fist to give himself a black eye. Anything to make it harder for the enemy. But nobody came close enough. Once he was secured they all moved back and Jahni looked around the room they’d turned into a torture chamber.
It hardly compared to the elaborate laboratory of pain he’d seen in Sevchenko’s basement in Albania. The two chairs faced each other, a few metres apart, and to the side between them stood a small trolley, which held an improvised electro shock machine, powered by car batteries. A bundle of long wires trailed from the machine, ending in electrodes. Jahni sneered at the amateur setup, hiding his fear.
More men had finished securing Madari in his chair in the same way as Jahni, hands cuffed behind him, legs chained to the chair legs and a strap tight around the chest. Madari seemed calm, calmer than Jahni. He didn’t struggle, saving his strength perhaps, knowing there was no point in fighting. Though he met Jahni’s eyes, he didn’t… connect. Jahni couldn’t think how else to say it. His eyes has a faraway expression. He looked through Jahni, not at him.
Could Jahni do the same? Not see the man he loved over there? See him hurt and not feel what he would if he let himself recognise Madari? His commander. Friend. Lover.
No, he couldn’t. He wrestled with his bonds when they simply dumped a bucket of cold water over Madari and barely noticed when they did the same to him. When men began to attach electrodes to Madari, Jahni thought he would start to rave like a lunatic.
Me first! Do it to me! He wanted to scream. The guilt would destroy him if they made him watch before they did it to him first. He didn’t have the strength for this. Once he might have, but not now. The man who’d run away into the desert didn’t have the strength to face this.
Do it to me! He could stand that. The pain would take him to another world anyway. A world with no room for anything else to fit. Where he couldn’t see or hear anything else.
He half got his wish. They attached electrodes to Jahni too, tearing his shirt to secure them to his chest.
Now would be the time to employ what he’d been taught about resisting interrogation, Jahni thought. But having Madari there made it harder. He’d learned ways to take himself elsewhere, distance himself from the pain. But with Madari sitting right there, his lean face pale in the glare, water dripping from his hair and that absent look in his eyes, it became close to impossible. Madari held him here in reality.
In his worst nightmare.
Saifullah stood between the two chairs, arms folded, hands inside the sleeves of the opposite arm, as if cold. It was cold, Jahni felt it more now with cold water on his skin, his clothes wet and sticking to him.
“This is your last chance to change your minds,” Saifullah said. “There’s no need for you to go through this.”
Neither answered. For a moment, Madari’s eyes changed. He was here again. Connected with Jahni. Jahni almost wished he was not. Let him be elsewhere, so he can’t be hurt. But he was here and he spoke.
“Kahil, you are the strongest man I know.”
Saifullah’s voice, quietly cutting between them. “Proceed.”
A bucket of water to the face woke Jahni, gasping. Were they keeping the water on ice somewhere? It was always well chilled. He’d had several buckets so far, when the pain knocked him out. At this rate they’d drown him long before they got around to shooting him.
How many buckets? How long? How many times had he passed out? Not as many as Madari. Every jolt Madari took, he passed out from. Jahni suspected it was deliberate. As if he could will himself to faint. Perhaps he held his breath. He hadn’t screamed as much as Jahni, who screamed when the electricity hit him and in-between ranted and snarled like a rabid dog.
Those in-between times frightened him. He felt so beyond control. Snarling like a dog. Like a wolf. If he got free he would tear his tormentors apart with bare hands and teeth. Feast on their hearts. Paint his skin with their blood. Scatter their body parts into the desert for the vultures and insects to feed on.
He tasted blood in his mouth and knew it was his own, from biting his tongue, but enjoyed the taste anyway. Wanted more. Like a vampire. Like a beast.
Bloodthirsty. He understood the word at last. People had called him bloodthirsty before, when really they only meant aggressive. This was something else. The pain brought out an animal side of him, buried deep from the days before fire and words.
The shocks were almost random. Sometimes the jolt would hit Jahni, sometimes Madari, sometimes both at once. Sometimes no shock came at all after the man at the machine pulled the switch and he’d smirk at them, as if he’d just pulled a good trick.
A respite. They were trying to revive Madari, who still slumped in his chair even after they threw more water on him. A man raised a hand as if to slap him, and Jahni’s snarl almost downed the word from Saifullah.
No, don’t mark them. Must look fit and well when they confess their crimes and sins. How tempted Jahni had been so many times now. How many schemes had he come up with? Like agree to make the video, then somehow—he needed to decide exactly how—destroy it before they could broadcast it.
How would it feel, to confess in front of these men that he and Madari had been lovers? Would he feel shame? No. Part of him wanted to yell it from the roof. I made love to him. We shared our bodies. We fucked. It frustrated him beyond measure to keep it secret.
But he wouldn’t have the secret forced from him. Criminals and sinners confessed. The world made him a criminal and a sinner, but he refused to think if himself as either. One day, one day he would not confess, he would declare himself.
Or possibly not, since he stood a very good chance of dying within a few hours.
They still couldn’t bring Madari around and Jahni’s stomach began to knot itself into a sick and tight ball. What had they done to him? Could electric shocks cause brain damage? A stroke maybe? These idiots might have the voltage too high.
A young man stepped forward, and held up a syringe.
“No!” Jahni’s hard and clear yell actually startled some of the men, including Saifullah, who whipped around, frowning at him. “He has unpredictable reactions to drugs,” Jahni said, marvelling at how he had become sane again so quickly, hearing his rational words. But hearing the plea in them too and knowing it was a mistake. “You might kill him!” As if they weren’t planning on putting a bullet in his head later anyway.
Still, right now, Madari was no good to them dead. He couldn’t make a video dead and they couldn’t use him to pressure Jahni if he’d gone beyond the reach of their torments. Saifullah was clever enough to appreciate that. He held up his hand and said something to the man with the needle, who stayed beside Madari but didn’t inject him yet.
Saifullah came over to Jahni and bent down close to him, spoke quietly.
“You’re right, Kahil. It’s a risk. We could reduce the dose, but even then, drugs are so unpredictable. Especially after all he’s been through. He might die.”
Jahni didn’t reply, though he thought his heart might burst right out of his chest, it pounded so hard, felt so big as if it filled all the space in there, squeezed out his lungs, so he couldn’t breathe.
“You know how you can stop us from giving him the drug, Kahil,” Saifullah said. “Protect him, as you always have. End this now and he’ll be safe.”
“Safe? When you’ve had what you want from us, you’ll kill us.”
Saifullah shrugged. “Maybe. You don’t know that. I may have other plans for you. You’re valuable bargaining chips. Would you see him die here from an accidental overdose? Or take the chance that you may both live for some time yet?”
“Death before dishonour,” Jahni whispered. The words sounded foolish, old-fashioned and inspiring all at once. Saifullah couldn’t understand. He sent men out to die a dishonourable suicide’s death attacking innocent people. He knew nothing of honour, whatever he thought of the glory of his deluded pawns.
“A shame you worship a man instead of God,” Saifullah said. “I’d have liked to have you on my side.”
“Go to hell.” Even if he still had his faith he couldn’t imagine himself becoming a follower of this man who didn’t attract the merely faithful, but the fanatical.
Saifullah waved his hand in a signal and Jahni held his breath as the young man with the needle stuck it into Madari’s arm and depressed the plunger. Held his breath. Waited. For what? Convulsions perhaps? But Madari merely jerked in his chair and then his head came up off his chest, eyes wide, face flushing.
A stimulant of some kind, Jahni supposed. To keep him awake and perhaps even make him feel the pain more. The thought made him groan.
Confess now. Don’t watch him go through any more. Don’t feel another jolt yourself. This is madness. Nobody would believe a word they said in any forced confession. Madness to resist and go through this. The window blinds were dark now, the daylight gone. How deep into the night was it? How long had he held out so far?
A jolt of electricity came out of nowhere then, too busy with his thoughts to see Saifullah had signalled his torturer to resume his work. Catching him off guard, he screamed louder than he had so far and heard Madari call his name, his voice agonised. Be strong, for him. Don’t let him see how bad it is.
Hadn’t he done enough? Both of them? Hadn’t they earned a moment of weakness? Was it so dishonourable to read out a forced confession? He was only a man. He couldn’t suffer forever without breaking.
Everyone broke in the end. Faris broke in the end. Gave up his friends.
And suffers shame to this day. And it took them days and they had to mutilate his hands to do it. Not even a whole day and night had gone by yet. Madari hadn’t broken. Jahni would not. He would not. He would not!
It took the KGB three days to break him last time and Saifullah’s men didn’t have that much time. Madari sensed their frustration and nervousness growing as the hours passed and still he and Jahni refused to make their video.
Since they gave him a stimulant of some kind he’d been wide awake, unable to find refuge in oblivion as he had been doing so frequently. He didn’t even know how he’d been doing that. Suspected it wasn’t voluntary, but rather his mind rebelling at the situation and knocking him out to save him from it. But now he was forced to stay awake, feel his own pain, see Kahil—his love, his soul—thrash and scream in his chair.
So proud of him though. He had the strength not only to resist his own pain, but Madari’s. Hadn’t given in and let them use Madari against him. It would shame them both if Jahni gave in to spare Madari the pain, or vice versa. Better death than that. Die together at least.
And now it seemed they would indeed die together. Saifullah told his torturer to step away from their improvised device. They’d had to change the batteries a couple of times and Madari took an irrational pride in that.
We took all you could give us and ate it!
Saifullah turned to Madari. “The only reward for your stubbornness is a swifter death. Sending the press a video of your execution is not my first choice, but it will serve as Plan B. You’ll be shot at dawn.”
“Dawn?” Jahni said, his voice a hoarse and painful rasp. “Perhaps making films is what you should stick with. You’ve got a sense of drama.”
Saifullah didn’t look back at Jahni, but his mouth compressed into a hard line and his face worked for a moment. He expected to be dealing with broken men by now, Madari thought. He underestimated us. Or overestimated himself.
“Leave them here,” Saifullah said and took most of the men out of the room with him. Two stayed on guard by the open door and one of them turned off the light. Madari almost smiled at that, remembering their own rationing of their electricity back at the camp. Another tip Saifullah had undoubtedly picked up from Madari’s reports.
“Are you okay?” Jahni asked, voice still hoarse and barely above a whisper.
“Aside from the torture you mean?”
The weird spluttering sound Jahni gave might have been laughter. Madari smiled at him. The smile hurt, all his muscles exhausted and cramping from the shocks, but he wanted Jahni to see it. I’m okay. Alive, sane, whole. Still strong.
“I’m proud of you, Kahil. Never forget that.”
He wanted to say more. I love you. You’re the finest man I know. The most beautiful. So much to say to him and he couldn’t, because of those men standing at the door.
Outside the door more men moved around, walked past carrying a video camera. Would they take it outside? Would they shoot Madari and Jahni up against a wall, with a firing squad? As officers, they were entitled to that. Or would they be forced to their knees and each get a bullet in the back of the head? Strange to sit here and hope for a firing squad.
He doubted he’d get it. Saifullah was an educated man, he’d be aware they could appear noble and brave that way. He wouldn’t allow it. He’d shoot them on their knees.
When he looked up at the still-dark window blind, Jahni must have guessed his thoughts.
“How long until dawn?”
Madari shrugged. No way to tell.
“Long enough to pray.”
He prayed, and then like Jahni earlier in their cell, Madari slept. He didn’t want to sleep. If he was to die soon he wanted to spend his final hours looking at Jahni. Even if they couldn’t say the things they wanted to say to each other, he could say them in his mind, hope what he thought showed in his eyes.
But exhaustion made it impossible to do anything but sleep. He dreamed of Jahni. Of good times. Fighting together, laughing together, loving each other. Now they’d die together. It was at least a consolation, to be together. He hoped the fatal shots would be simultaneous. A last mercy.
“Faris, wake up!”
Jahni’s voice and other voices, shouts, brought him from an uneasy, restless sleep, yet reluctant to leave a dream where he lay with Jahni in his arms, skin naked and warm against each other. No sound but the rain on the windows.
“Wake up!” Jahni said again, louder and Madari lifted his head, snapped open his eyes when gunfire rattled somewhere away in another part of the house. He found he could barely see. The door was closed and the lights still off. Two voices spoke rapidly. The guards, concealed inside the room now. The gunfire went on. Rescue? Was this rescue?
“Faris, wake up!”
Jahni couldn’t see him, he remembered.
A voice in the dark, one of the guards snapped at him to shut up. Should he obey? Or should he yell to bring the rescuers to this room. If he did would the guards shoot him on the spot to silence him? That would be a tactical error—he and Jahni were valuable hostages the two men could use to bargain their way out of this room alive. But would they think rationally now?
Shouts and yells close outside the door now and Jahni’s voice rang out, a louder yell than Madari could manage, his throat raw and aching from screaming. The yell must have hurt Jahni, his throat could be in no better shape, but his shout was like a grenade exploding.
“We’re in here! Two armed guards!”
Those armed guards yelled and pistols fired several shots. The muzzle flashes and the sparks as the bullets ricocheted on the walls painted white streaks across Madari’s vision. He flinched down on instinct, but his bonds restrained him. He cried out Jahni’s name, fearing he’d been shot.
“I’m okay,” Jahni said, voice normal, if hoarser than usual. The shots had gone wild in the dark, striking walls, floor. A smashing sound might have been one hitting the infernal torture machine.
The gunshots brought whoever was out there to them even faster than they might have come just from Jahni’s shout. The door burst open, bringing no light, and no men, but Madari heard something rattle along the floor and closed his eyes tightly. Flashbang? Teargas? Smoke? He wished his hands were free to cover his ears if it was a flashbang. A hissing sound told him it was tear gas and he kept his eyes closed tight, despite the temptation to look at what he could hear going on, a struggle, yells and curses.
His eyes did open, involuntarily when someone came up close to him, but closed again and he flinched away as a light shone into his face. A flashlight, pulled away again quickly. Before his eyes could sting too badly from the gas something came over his head, enclosing his face and making him cry out and struggle for a second. But the man who was no more than a dim shape in front of him spoke in a loud voice.
He knew the voice. Kadry. One of the first men into the unit. A sergeant now and one of the best of the best. Madari wished his hands were free, he’d embrace him. On the very heels of the thought, his hands were free, someone behind him with bolt cutters. He didn’t embrace Kadry though. He couldn’t. His arms flopped loosely, aflame with agony as he tried to bring them back to the front.
The shackles at his feet clattered to the floor. The strap around his chest came loose and he would have fallen right off the chair, but Kadry caught him.
“Jahni,” Madari said, voice muffled by the gasmask. “They were firing.”
“He’s fine. Sit still, sir.”
Madari obeyed. When a sergeant gave an officer an order there was generally a good reason and an intelligent officer would obey. Kadry knew more about what was going on than Madari did.
He wasn’t too convinced by Kadry’s answer about Jahni, but along with all the yelling from outside, he heard Jahni’s voice, positively ranting, demanding a report. Probably wanting to take immediate charge of the operation. He certainly sounded alive and well.
“Major Jahni,” Madari called. “Stand down.”
Jahni shut up abruptly as if realising he was being foolish and must accept that his role here was rescuee, however unnatural that felt to him. The gunfire only lasted a few more seconds, before the shouts of his men, Jahni’s men, started to come through, close by and over the radio.
They’d won. They’d taken the house, secured the hostages, must have killed many of the hostiles, but had they…had they…
“Saifullah,” Madari said, voice croaky, muffled. Frustrated, he hauled up the gasmask. “Saifullah is here!”
Kadry didn’t answer, but his eyes widened behind his mask. While Madari pulled his own mask back on as the remaining gas stung his eyes, Kadry stood, turned away, speaking into his radio headset.
A large hand gripped Madari’s arm when he wobbled on the seat and he turned to see the biggest man in the unit, Private Zahal, holding him in place. If he couldn’t stay on his feet when he tried to stand up Zahal could carry him out like a child. He thought he’d like to avoid that.
The lights came on. The harsh glare made more than one man groan and shield his eyes. Some of them wore night vision goggles and pulled them off. A man appeared in the doorway, as anonymous as the others in the black combat gear and wearing a gas mask. He stepped into the room, pulling the mask off.
Raian. Of course, he’d be in charge, fighting in the close quarters of a house was his specialty. He looked at Madari and Jahni with a mix of relief and concern.
“Bring the medics in now,” he said into his radio.
“Did you get him?” Jahni demanded. “Saifullah. Did you get him?”
Their future rested on Raian’s next words.
“I don’t know,” Raian said. “We haven’t checked all the bodies yet. Kadry! Take care of that. Check every face. Dead, wounded and prisoners. Find him.”
“Sir!” Kadry rushed out of the room.
Two men lay near the door, dead. The two guards. A soldier, unrecognisable with his gasmask still on, turned them over, checked their faces. He shook his head at Raian. Madari hadn’t expected either of them to be Saifullah, but still gave a sigh of disappointment.
The medics showed up, checked Madari and Jahni quickly, a preliminary examination only. Were they fit to move? They were, but neither of them could stand unaided and a man on either side helped them up and out of the room. Working their way slowly through the house, they came across many dead men, all of them Saifullah’s, none of their own. The unit did have some wounded and more medics were treating them in what looked like quite a neat little infirmary.
Very good of the enemy to provide such good facilities, Madari thought, feeling mildly hysterical from relief and-light headed from standing up after so long, and from hunger and thirst. He must have swallowed some of the water thrown at him through the long night of torment, but not enough.
“Water,” he said. “Jahni too.”
“We’re putting you on a helicopter with the medics,” Raian said. “They’ll give you water on there.”
When he said ‘helicopter’ a sound Madari had been vaguely aware of seemed to clarify itself. Helicopter blades whirring. It must be right outside.
It was, actually inside the large compound the house stood in. More dead men out there and more soldiers from the unit, still in a state halfway between relaxed and combat mode. Alert for any last trouble, but knowing the job was done. They had their gasmasks off and they smiled or nodded to Madari and Jahni as they passed.
Kadry moved among the bodies, turning them over and shining his flashlight into each face. He glanced over and shook his head. Madari longed to break away from the men helping him and start turning over bodies himself, but knew he’d fall down without support.
No talking possible, over the racket of the helicopter, Madari glanced around to see Jahni was still behind him, still okay. He didn’t catch Madari’s glance, looking past him at the helicopter, frowning. Then men inside the chopper started hauling Madari up into it, Jahni after him.
Raian boarded too, but only to check they were safe aboard. “See you back at barracks!” he shouted over the noise.
“Wait,” Madari called, throat hurting as he shouted. “The wounded! Aren’t the rest of the wounded coming on the chopper?”
“No, sir. We have another, this one is for you two.” That seemed odd, but Madari didn’t argue, hadn’t the strength.
“Find Saifullah!” he managed to yell as Raian turned away. “He was there. Find him!”
Raian jumped back out of the door and hurried away. A soldier closed the door, and the helicopter took off. It cleared the walls of the compound, rose above the house and banked away across the desert.
A couple of men with medics patches on their uniforms came over. Jahni looked at them, frowning, then leaned across in his seat to Madari.
“This isn’t one of our helicopters.”
“It has Army markings on it, but it’s not one of the unit’s choppers. It’s not even Royal Guard.”
Madari looked around at the interior, though wasn’t as confident he could identify it as Jahni could. “Are you sure?”
What the hell did it mean? Did it matter? The medics weren’t very helpful. Army medical corp, they said they were, not Royal Guard, they couldn’t say anything about why this wasn’t a Royal Guard helicopter. Madari quickly grew tired of trying to question them, unable to stand shouting over the noise of the helicopter with his ravaged throat.
They flew on into the East. When the medics finished and left them with water to sip slowly, Madari and Jahni looked out at the first glow of a dawn neither of them expected to see. On the arm between their seats Jahni’s hand touched his. Didn’t take it, but the back of his hand rested against the back of Madari’s. Warm skin, browned by the sun. It had to be enough. They were alive.
Madari didn’t know how long they’d have to fly to reach the city, but it couldn’t be too long and he expected to see it appear on the horizon at any moment, the tall buildings, the sprawl of homes surrounding the centre.
He didn’t see them. Instead he saw a dark patch in the desert ahead of them, which became a large house, a very large house, surrounded by a walled-in estate. A road snaked away into the distance, but the house—make that a palace—was the only building visible for miles around. The helicopter started to descend.
Jahni sat up in his seat, trying to see better out of the front. “What the hell? We’re landing here? What is this?”
It wasn’t one of the King’s houses, Madari knew. There was something familiar about it, but between not even knowing what area of the country they were in and the strangeness of the aerial view he didn’t recognise the estate.
In a few minutes the helicopter came down to land, on a marked helipad at the back of a grand, white stone house, made warm and pink by the morning light. Welcoming, both for its elegant design and its promise of beds, showers and food. But bewilderment kept Madari from anticipating those things.
The medics and soldiers helped Madari and Jahni out of the helicopter. They could stand now, though held onto each other, still weak. Every one of Madari’s muscles ached, from the forced contractions of the electric shocks and from strains caused by thrashing against his bonds.
A small party of men stood nearby, waiting at a door into the house, and the party from the helicopter approached them. Behind them the rotor blades slowed, the gale whipped up by them subsiding.
The man in the centre of the waiting group, wearing white robes and headdress, came forward, the other men following him, but staying a respectful step behind. His headdress fluttered in the last of the wind from the slowing rotor blades. He smiled as he came close, holding out his hand and Madari heard Jahni stifle a curse. For his own part, he gasped.
“Good morning, Colonel, Major. Welcome to my home.”
Madari finally recognised the house and the extensive estate. Recognised the man, with his snowy white clothes and his neat beard.