Madari jerked awake at Major Dhan’s voice and looked up at him.
“Sorry,” Dhan said, handing him a tin mug of coffee. “I didn’t realise you were sleeping.”
Madari checked his watch. Almost five. The sun was up. He’d fallen asleep still sitting up, legs stretched in front of him. He glanced around, sipping the coffee. He couldn’t see Jahni. Perhaps he was in the command post or the radio room. As always now he felt disconnected when he didn’t know where Jahni was. He’d grown used to it, but it felt harder to cope with when they were in danger like this.
“Any new developments?” Madari asked Dhan.
“One of the television stations has gone off the air. There was gunfire audible before the picture cut out. Sir, more civilians have arrived, wanting to take their private planes out. Can we resume the flights?”
Madari considered his answer as he stood up and stretched. The convoys heading for Az-Ma’ir would take some time to get past the army units that awaited them on every road into the city. The airport might be safe for several hours yet. And if the army units stopped the convoys entirely, the airport might never come under direct attack. There were smaller units of the enemy in the city, clearly, but if there were any of them large enough to make an attack on the airport they’d have done so now.
“Yes, Major. Go ahead with that until I tell you otherwise.”
“Thank you, sir. There’s food here.” He led Madari to a table that held bread, pastries and coffee. Several of the officers stood there, having a makeshift breakfast. Raian hastily swallowed a bite of a pastry and saluted Madari as they approached.
“Good morning, sir. We—”
His words cut off in a roar of noise. A huge blow to his chest threw Madari to the ground, the world fading to blackness…only for seconds. Consciousness returned painfully.
Was it a grenade? It must have been a grenade. Or a shell? He was on his back, and there was a lot of yelling somewhere. The table with the breakfast laid on it had been tipped over and the floor was littered with bread and pastries. And men.
His officers! The pain vanished in a surge of horror, rage and terror. Raian… he spoke to him only a second ago, now he lay at Madari’s side, chest heaving, abdomen a bloody mess Madari couldn’t look at. Could only look at the man’s face, the terror of death in his eyes.
The eyes locked on Madari as he leaned over Raian. The only help he could give now was comfort, and he found Raian’s hand. He wanted to take it in both his own, but his right arm wouldn’t move, so he used only his left.
“Alex…” Raian whispered. “Alex.”
Was he calling for her? Or did he simply want her name to be the last word he spoke. Madari understood that.
“Hush now, son. Rest.”
Raian did. His heaving chest stilled, the terror in his eyes replaced by peace. Madari reached up to close those eyes, but before he could, he heard his name called, in a panicked voice.
“Faris!” Jahni of course. Running across the concourse, from wherever he had been. Running to the scene of destruction and death. There was something of a melee on the concourse, soldiers restraining another of their own. Another infiltrator. Other men were trying to help the officers, but most were dead. Major Dhan, also dead, lay at Madari’s side.
“Help me,” Madari said, as Jahni skidded to a halt beside him. He raised his left arm for a hand up. The right still wouldn’t work for some reason.
“Faris! Lie still for God’s sake!” Jahni dropped to his knees by Madari, but turned away from him shouting, “Where are the medics? Get them now!”
“I think it’s too late,” Madari said. Raian, Dhan, so many others.
“No, you’ll be okay,” Jahni said. “Lie down. Let me put pressure on it.”
He trailed off, looking down at himself, at the same thing Jahni was looking at–the shattered mess of Madari’s right shoulder. Ah. That’s why his arm wouldn’t work. The stench of the blood hit him.
He passed out.
This time it must have been a few minutes before he woke again, because he was somewhere else. A gate lounge, he realised. The one set up as a medical centre. Medics were working on him and the pain was unspeakable now. How could he not have noticed it before?
Jahni was there, pacing behind the medics as they worked, not looking at Madari. Madari understood why. He had to stay strong, especially now. And now he shouldn’t be in here.
“Kahil,” Madari said. Instantly Jahni dropped to one knee at the side of the bench seats where Madari lay. He couldn’t get too close because of the medics continuing their work, ignoring him.
“Major, you’re in command now.”
Jahni looked alarmed at that for a second. Command of the whole Royal Guard—not only the contingent here and his own unit—something he might have once hoped to achieve in a more official way one day. In these circumstances it was no prize to celebrate. But after that moment of worry he set his jaw and nodded.
“You can’t stay in here. You must do your duty.”
Jahni didn’t argue. They both knew it was his duty. If it meant Madari died in here alone, while Jahni was elsewhere doing his duty, well that was the life they’d chosen. A life where death might come at any moment. Only chance had saved Jahni this time. He’d been elsewhere when the rest of the officers gathered together and the infiltrator took his opportunity.
“Brilliant,” Madari whispered.
“Sir?” Jahni said.
“A second wave. Yesterday was the first. Kill the commanders. Today, kill those who stepped up to take their places. Brilliant.”
“You think this has happened everywhere? The military will be in total disarray if it has. Will there be a third wave?”
There didn’t even need to be. Fear and paranoia would work their spell on the men left in charge now. But just in case…
“Kahil, put on your body armour.”
Jahni nodded. “Yes, sir.”
Only when Jahni left the room did Madari allow himself to cry out with the pain as the doctor worked on his wound.
Jahni walked away from the gate lounge. Walked away from Madari and wondered if he’d ever see him alive again and if that would be because of his own death or Madari’s?
The doctor said the bullet was deep in the shoulder and only surgery could remove it. Madari needed to be in hospital and he needed blood.
Jahni tried to pull his mind away from those thoughts which would make it impossible for him to work. He was in command now. He needed to confirm if Madari was right about the ‘second wave’. He’d have the radio room try to contact the other contingents of the Royal Guard and other regiments. What about the units waiting to defend the city? If they were left leaderless, in chaos… But men would still fight even without officers and NCOs. There was something else. The enemy must have something else in reserve. But what? Well, they would find out in due time. Meanwhile, he had something to do.
Several of Jahni’s own men stood guard over the infiltrator who’d turned an assault rifle on the officers. He knelt in a corner, a defiant expression on his battered face. Fear there too, Jahni thought. But he almost certainly hadn’t expected to be alive at this point so it wasn’t death he feared. Torture then? But Jahni had no time to bother with questions. Besides the man wouldn’t know anything useful. If there was a third wave this man wouldn’t know about it. Saifullah’s cells could teach Military Intelligence some lessons about ‘need to know’.
So what did they do with him? They could keep him here under guard, which would take men away from other duties. He’d need food and water. Though they had plenty of food for now, seeing the bread scattered across the floor and soaked in the blood of the dead and injured men made Jahni determined to give him neither a drop nor a crumb of their supplies.
“Stand clear,” he told his men, and those nearest to him stood aside. The man glared up at Jahni, who had only three words to say to him. Words to let him know he’d failed. “Madari is alive.”
Jahni’s pistol was already in his hand. He raised it and fired once. Blood, brain and bone struck the wall behind the prisoner, before he fell down on his face. Even the hardened Special Forces men jumped at the sudden brutality of their commander’s action. They stared at him with very unfamiliar alarm on their faces before they pulled themselves together.
“Clear that up,” Jahni said of the body, as he holstered his gun. “Don’t put him with our dead.” The traitor wore the same uniform, but he wasn’t one of ‘our dead’.
As Jahni walked away to put on his body armour he heard the first rattle of automatic fire outside.
Madari opened his eyes to see Jahni close to him. He wondered if this was another hallucination induced by the painkillers. He’d been in a hazy cloud for many hours. Though he remained aware of where he was, after his grandfather sat and talked to him for some time he’d been forced to conclude he might be seeing some things that weren’t, technically speaking, there.
Jahni appeared to be real though. He even helped Madari raise his head and sip some water.
“The doctor says you’re doing well,” Jahni said. “The bleeding is under control and there’s no sign of infection.”
There might be an unspoken ‘yet’ in that sentence, Madari thought. He knew the bullet was still in his shoulder. Until that was out then he was not doing well, he was only hanging on.
“What time is it?” he asked.
“Almost ten in the evening.”
“What?” A whole day had passed in the drug haze. “What’s happening? Give me a sitrep.”
“You don’t need to worry about that. You have to rest.”
“Please, Kahil. Tell me.”
Jahni sighed. He moved slightly closer, sat on the floor.
“We came under attack this morning not long after the shooting. It’s only a small force and we’ve been keeping them pinned down. But it means nobody can get in and out of here. Otherwise we’d have taken you to a hospital.”
“The other wounded?”
He saw Jahni gulp a couple of times. “There were only two other officers left alive after the shooting. They both died earlier today.”
Madari didn’t ask the names. He couldn’t let himself see the faces. Raian’s dead face haunted him already. He’d seen Raian walking around here earlier, uniform bloody, carrying a holdall and a boarding pass. He’d asked if Madari knew when the next flight to Dubai left and Madari had wept for Alex.
“What else?” Madari said. “What about the rest of the city? What have you heard?”
“It’s almost impossible to get anything now. There are a lot of explosions out there and gunfire. I…I think those convoys got through. I don’t know how, but they got past the Army units very fast.”
“All the stations have gone off the air, and some have started broadcasting loops of the old tape of that interview with Saifullah. They must have been captured. But even they aren’t making any statements.”
“What else?” Jahni was holding something back. Something he didn’t think Madari had the strength to hear perhaps. “Please, Kahil, what else?”
“There’s a rumour that Saifullah is in the palace. The man himself I mean, not his troops. It’s only a rumour,” he added quickly. “And even if it’s true it doesn’t mean anything happened to the king! He could have got out yesterday.”
Madari closed his eyes at the words ‘in the palace’. Rumour, perhaps. But along with the rest…
“We’ve lost,” he said in no more than a whisper.
“No! Jahni said. “We definitely still hold Military Intelligence. The reports from there are sporadic, but they’re still in control of the building. There have even been some communications from inside the Defence Ministry. They aren’t very coherent, but there are people on our side still in there.”
“Really?” Madari’s eyes snapped open and he almost forgot himself and tried to sit up. The pain knocked him back down and he groaned as his head spun. Jahni came closer, touched him, an arm across his chest.
“Easy. Lie still. You’ll tear the stitches.”
He had stitches? He didn’t even know that. He lay still, trying to focus on the weight and warmth of Jahni’s arm across him. He remembered when they’d lain in bed this way. Remembered the sweetness of those days. He’d like that to be the last memory he took with him.
“Kahil,” he said softly, not needing to raise his voice as Jahni was so close. He didn’t dare let anyone else hear these words. “Promise me something.”
“Promise you’ll find me in Paradise.”
“Shh,” Jahni said. He scowled, but it was unconvincing. His eyes shone. “You are alive!”
“But we’ve lost. I’m so sorry, my love. We should have left long ago, so I could have given you the life you deserve.”
Jahni’s head dropped forward, his face hidden against Madari’s chest. Madari reached his good arm across the broad shoulders. They trembled under his hand, but didn’t shake or heave as Jahni held in all the emotion he couldn’t express here. All the grief for the lost life they might have had together. A life where they didn’t need the Kevlar armour that kept Madari from feeling the warmth of his lover’s body.
Jahni sat up. Despite the tear stains, the dried blood and dirt and two days of beard growth his face was more beautiful than Madari had ever seen it.
“I love you.” Jahni didn’t even whisper it. Perhaps the medics heard. It didn’t matter anymore. It was over now. “And you are alive. I will keep you alive.”
His walkie-talkie interrupted them. A voice came through. “Major! We need you now, sir!”
Duty calls. Jahni didn’t have to be told. He stood up, Madari’s hand sliding from around his shoulders, down his arm to hold his hand as he raised his walkie with the other hand.
“I’m on my way.” He scrubbed an arm across his face, drying his tears. “Stay alive, Faris. I’ll be back for you.”
Jahni walked back into the departure lounge to find it dark, yet abuzz with frantic activity.
“What’s happening?” he demanded.
“They’re coming,” Kadry said. He handed Jahni a pair of night vision goggles and pointed out towards the runway area. Jahni looked out and groaned at the sight. Trucks. Men. Not the small force they’d been battling sporadically all day. That must have been there to keep them busy while the main attack advanced.
“We’re moving into position,” Kadry reported.
“Then prepare for…” Jahni trailed off. “Wait,” he said. Lights in the sky out there. A moment later the distinctive sound. Helicopters. Big ones. Gunships? “Wait.” They’d heard and seen planes and helicopters all day, some of them firing at targets on the ground and it had cheered the men to think they had air cover. But now a doubt nagged at Jahni.
“Choppers?” Kadry said. He was grinning. Could this be the Air Force coming to their rescue in the nick of time? Jahni could see them better now. Half a dozen helicopters, definitely attack helicopters and they were moving in on the airport. He frowned. Did they intend to fire on those troops on the ground? There were planes still standing out there on the apron. Trucks full of aviation fuel. It couldn’t be a good idea to…
And then Jahni knew. He knew how the trucks had got past the road blocks. He knew the planes and choppers they’d seen firing at targets in the city hadn’t been firing at the enemy. He knew all this in the split second he saw the lead chopper launch its missiles at the terminal building.
The long glass wall that looked out onto the runways shattered along its entire length. Jahni didn’t see the missiles hitting the back wall, killing his men on the way, because he was flat on his face with his head covered. But when the horrific noise died away to leave him with ringing in his ears, accompanied by the cries of the wounded, he looked up. He could barely see through the dust and smoke.
There was only one order he could give now. Their vehicles still stood outside, under guard. They had to get to them before the enemy did. He’d have stayed and fought and died facing ground troops. But to stay here now would be suicide. Nuggets of safety glass cascaded from him as he climbed to his feet. The words tasted bitter in his mouth as he spoke into his walkie-talkie.
“Retreat to the vehicles and withdraw to secondary positions! Bring the wounded. Leave the dead.” He switched channels on the walkie as the men started to stagger to their feet and run around. “Doctor, prepare the colonel to be moved. I’m coming now.”
He ran, coughing and choking on the dust, to the gate lounge to find the medics huddled around Madari.
“We’re withdrawing,” he said. “We’re under air attack. I’ll take him.”
They’d wrapped Madari in a blanket. He was unconscious. Jahni lifted him as gently as possible, trying not to let the urgency make him rough. He resisted the attempts of the medics to share the burden and settled Madari over his shoulder, holding on tight to his legs. Madari made no sound.
“He’s sedated,” the doctor said. “He asked us not to, but to move him, it’s essential. The pain…”
“Right. Let’s go!”
The medics ran ahead of him and beside him, lugging their bulky emergency kits. They’d need them. Jahni saw wounded men being loaded in the trucks. He found the nearest car with the keys in it; Madari’s own staff car and the medics helped him lay Madari in the back seat. The doctor made to get in the car, but Jahni stopped him.
“Get in one of the trucks. They have wounded.”
The doctor looked torn, but ran to the nearest truck, where the men hauled him on board. Madari was stable for now; the doctor had fresh emergencies to deal with.
“Move out!” Jahni yelled, waving the trucks out. “Weapons ready!” They’d have to smash through the small enemy force covering their route out of the airport. But after that they were clear. The mass of the enemy was on the other side of the building.
As the first of the trucks started up and roared away Jahni slid behind the wheel of the staff car and followed, foot down hard on the accelerator. He could do nothing to spare Madari the bumpy ride and was glad he was sedated for it. But it couldn’t be doing him any good, even if he wasn’t feeling it.
“Roadblock coming up!” The announcement came over the walkie, from the lead truck. But they didn’t slow; in fact the small convoy went faster. The road block was only a couple of vehicles hastily parked across the road. Shots greeted the trucks and cars as they smashed on through, pushing the blocking cars aside with ease. Royal Guard soldiers with huge M60s leaned from the windows and sides of the trucks, laying down suppression fire.
In seconds the road block was behind them. But the enemy wasn’t. More gunfire came at them from all sides and Jahni swore and ducked on instinct. Dammit, why hadn’t Madari followed Rahama’s example and got himself a bulletproof car?
The street lights were off. Jahni couldn’t see anything but the dark shape and rear lights of the truck in front and the muzzle flashes from their guns and the enemy’s. Follow the lights. That’s all he could do. But a second later those lights went crazy as the truck skidded.
Had a tyre blown? No chance to see. Jahni hauled on his steering wheel, turning, bouncing over the central divider, hearing horrible screeching metal noises from the chassis. He feared he’d be grounded on the divider, or break an axle, but he made it safely onto the other carriageway. A turn-off lay straight ahead of him. It was utterly dark and his instincts made him follow it, seeking the shelter of the blackness.
He had to slow after a few seconds as the adrenaline rush ebbed, and he realised he had a good chance of smashing into something in the dark at this speed. Glancing in his rear view mirror he saw nothing but darkness behind him. Shit, where were the trucks?
He’d got split up from the convoy. Had it stopped? Had the skidding truck blocked it, or had that managed to continue? If the convoy was scattered and disorganised they’d be picked off truck by truck.
He slowed, turned off his lights after he assessed what lay ahead—just more open road—and considered his next move. Go back? Or try to work his way around the buildings on either side of him and pick up the convoy again? Or make his own way to the secondary position? Was the secondary position still viable? If the enemy had control of the Air Force then ground troops were beaten already.
Voices from the walkie-talkie on the passenger seat made him flinch, his nerves so badly stretched after thirty six hours on his feet.
He heard the voices of his men in the trucks. They were regrouping, the main body of the convoy reporting their position and ordering the others to rejoin them there. Jahni knew where they were. He could reach them in just a few minutes and lead his men on… to what? Death?
And what was the alternative? Let them go to their deaths without him? Without the only officer they had left?
A small groan from the back seat reminded him one other officer was alive too. If Madari wasn’t there Jahni would already be on his way to rejoin his men and lead them in a glorious last stand. But Madari was there. Helpless and dependent on Jahni for survival.
He wasn’t going to rejoin the convoy.
He didn’t know that he made the decision as such. It seemed as if it just settled on him. There was no decision. It wasn’t something he could even consider for more than a second. He had to get Madari to safety.
The border lay south of here. If he met nothing to stop him on the road he could be in Yemen by dawn. Their passports were in their pockets. Shit, he hoped Madari’s still was. Time to think about that later.
His men didn’t need him. They could fight without officers. But if they were smart they wouldn’t fight at all, they’d flee now. Jahni knew exactly what Saifullah’s people would do with every man of the Special Forces unit they captured, including himself and Madari.
The war was over. They’d lost. All he could do now was stay alive to fight another day. And save Madari.
Another groan from the back seat stirred him into action. He restarted the car and checked the petrol gauge. Enough to get to the border.
“Kahil…” A faint whisper, pained and still dazed from the drugs.
“It’s okay,” Jahni said in his most reassuring voice, driving off slowly, trying to decide the best route to the roads for the border. “Just rest. We’re safe.”
“Where are we going?”
Jahni’s mind filled with the image of a beach house with wood floors and French windows that opened on to a deck with a view of the Pacific Ocean.
“Home,” he said. “I’m taking you home.”