The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif will be available October 8th!
Sometimes, I wonder if the world might just look better through a riflescope. Crisper, clearer, narrowed down. Less messy.
In my crosshairs, a boy soldier, just a teenager, not much younger than me, is asleep. Mouth slightly open, hand flung over his eyes to block the glimmering dawn light that’s started to spread into the sky. I can even see the tired threads on the frayed collar of his stained camouflage jacket. I shift my rifle to the left, where, farther back, behind a stand of thorny trees, is a squat concrete building where this militia group’s leader, Ahmed, sleeps. Then I swing right, over to the caged area where the fifty or so girls they kidnapped three months ago are trapped. Everyone is asleep: the soldiers, their hostages, their leader. I wait and listen to the other two women beside me.
Lying so close to me that the lengths of our bodies are almost touching, is Hala. I feel her shift, and behind us Caitlin coughs, quietly, suppressing the sound, although we are way too high up and far back from the camp for anyone to hear us. I cough too. The air here is dry; scratchy dry—catching in your throat every time you breathe. The smell of scorched earth rises up to my nose again—the smell of West Africa. For a moment, I think about the tarnished metal smell of rainy streets in London, at home. But it doesn’t last long, and I cough again.
“Short delay on the incoming trucks,” Caitlin says softly. “Three, four minutes.”
Hala and I relax off our riflescopes, and I turn to look at Caitlin over my shoulder while I use my water bottle to knock away a dead cockroach that lies next to me. She’s listening to a feed in her ear.
“I’m hungry,” Hala says. Hala is always eating, or thinking about eating.
Caitlin reaches into her small backpack and tosses us each a protein bar. I’m not thrilled with it, but I doubt she has fresh croissants in there, so I keep quiet and take it. Hala eats hers fast, without comment. Fueling up. I swallow mine with less enthusiasm. The cold slide of sweetness in my mouth is disgusting. I try to remember that millions of children are starving in Africa and that I have no right to complain. Especially since we’ll be back home tomorrow.
“Let’s get set up again,” Caitlin orders kindly. Something about Caitlin’s American accent, which is a complete drawl, like something out of a cowboy movie, makes me feel even more British.
Hala and I obey, leaning into our riflescopes, eyes focused once more down on the militia camp below. We’re all in the same positions we took the first night we were here, when we were just watching, tweaking the plan. Christ, that was a rubbish night. When I finally got to sleep, I was thrilled to dream of something else.
We have these contact lenses that zoom in and out depending on how you blink, so even from up here we had a perfect view of the soldiers. I hadn’t expected them to be so young. You see videos about child soldiers in Africa, but these weren’t kids—and yet they weren’t men either. Probably recruited willingly by Ahmed and his terrorist militia. If you’re stuck in a village working the land all day to plant crops that may never actually grow, maybe Ahmed gives you something to believe in—and guns to play with. We watched them that night, laughing, teasing each other the way boys do, scrapping in little fights that rose up like boiling water and then evaporated as fast. The bloodied noses, shouts and shoves; I could handle that.
But what they did to the girls . . . These fifty girls they had captured from a distant village, in an attempt to blackmail the government into releasing prisoners . . . None of us could watch what they were doing, and none of us could look at each other. When I caught Caitlin’s eyes by mistake, they were welled up, which somehow made me even angrier, that she was suffering. I wanted to do something right then, go down there and end it all at gunpoint. I think I even scrambled up, because Caitlin put a hand on my arm to grab me and she held it there, calming me down for a minute. It had ended by itself, by two in the morning. The human urge for sleep overtaking all the other urges. And the camp fell quiet, just as it is now.
Lying on your stomach on hard, baked earth is no picnic. We’ve been stretched out there for nearly an hour because Caitlin likes to be early for everything, doesn’t like the stress of cutting things too fine. My legs are getting stiff. I wiggle them and wipe a smear of sweat off my nose. Sunlight has lifted the ink color of the sky behind the rough line of trees far ahead, and the heat is already there, weighing us down. I’m tense, nervous; because once this raid starts we can’t make a mistake. I start to fidget and I feel Hala turn to look at me with irritation.
“What?” I demand.
But Hala turns back to her own rifle, looking through the viewfinder. Hala doesn’t talk much at the best of times, and on top of that, she doesn’t like speaking English. She speaks it fine—really well, considering she only learned it properly in the past couple of years. But she keeps to herself, and I’m pretty sure she never had much to say in Arabic either. Usually I appreciate that about her, not having to do a ton of small talk all the time, but now, her perfect calm feels annoying.
“Damn, this heat,” I say, just to break the tension.
Caitlin’s soft Southern tones are soothing, like oil on water.
“This ain’t heat. Iraq in August, carrying fifty pounds of combat gear. That’s heat.”
“You’re not the only one who’s been military-trained,” I tell her.
“And I can’t compete with what you got up to, Jessie,” smiles Caitlin. “I was just a foot soldier. Nothing special.”
Acknowledging people’s feelings is Caitlin’s favorite response to everything. They must have taught it to her in officer training once, and it stuck. I learned it in a leadership course a couple of years ago in England, in this special training school I was in, but I was only sixteen then and I usually preferred head-on confrontation to worrying about what the other person felt all the time.
Still, this isn’t the army, or a government program, and, in our little team of three, Caitlin sets the tone and gives the orders. So I subside. I shift a bit because she always sees through me, knows my need to boast, but now her smile fades. Her eyes turn to where two trucks are coming over the horizon toward us. The camp below is still silent, scattered with the outlines of the sprawled, sleeping boys.
“Seven minutes.” In Caitlin’s eye, the lens gives her a reading on the trucks’ speed, their distance, and their ETA.
“Ready?” Caitlin asks.
I feel a pulse of adrenaline rising through me.
“I was born ready.”
I can hear the swagger in my own voice, can feel Hala rolling her eyes, but I can’t help it. Hala, of course, just nods.
“Line up your first shot.”
We both bend our heads to our riflescopes. Hala focuses on sleeping soldiers to the right, I take the left side. We wait for Caitlin to give the order. Time moves slowly now, and every whisper of movement has paused, even our breathing.
“Now,” Caitlin commands.
The first squeeze of the trigger is a surprise to my fingers, as if I always forget the exact pressure to use. Perhaps because that pressure has changed a bit with the modifications on these rifles, because they shoot drugged darts, not bullets. Still, it’s easy for me, hitting targets. One, two, three, four . . . I pick off unsuspecting soldiers in a steady rhythm. Because steady matters. Steady means not rushing, because rushing could mean a mistake that could swallow us all.
One eye is on the riflescope, and with the other I watch through my zoomed-in contact lens as the soldiers feel the sting of the darts. They rouse themselves for a couple of seconds before they crash into unconsciousness. One after another they are hit. Twenty, thirty . . . and my side is done. Hala is still finishing off hers. She’s slower, but she’s an excellent shot. Now everything is still. The trees rustle under a cough of wind, and in the cage, the women shift a little, but the expanse of dirt that forms the main part of the camp is silent.
Hala glances at me with a semihappy look. We did a good job. But then, Caitlin’s voice interrupts.
Hala and I both swivel. A single soldier is up, running toward Ahmed’s room. Thin legs and a torn jacket that flaps against his skinny frame. He’s smart—darting from side to side, making it hard to take aim.
Except for me. Still caught in the momentum of his run, he drops forward onto his face, sprawled in the red dust. And everything is silent once again.
Caitlin sighs with relief and throws me a smile. Hala just shakes her head as if she can’t believe the shot.
“Let’s go,” says Caitlin. “The trucks are coming.”
I can just make out the low thrum of their engines as they head in, carefully timed, from the west. Those trucks are the only assistance the government of this place is giving us, once we’ve done the hard part. I scramble up, fold away my rifle, grab hold of our weapons, and follow the others down to the camp.
We step carefully among the soldiers. Mouths slack in forced sleep, defenseless. Hala sweeps over them with her weapon to be sure none of them has escaped our darts. Then she heads to the cage where the women stand staring, openmouthed, silent. We are all dressed in dust-colored, fitted combat clothes, with holsters, weapons, and boots. Our heads are now swathed in keffiyeh scarves that we’ve pulled up over our faces. Only our eyes are visible. Cell phones are everywhere, even out here, and we can’t let anyone know who we are.
While Hala smashes open the cage door to rescue the women, Caitlin and I hurry past, toward Ahmed’s hut. But the women are hesitant. Hala tries to reassure them that she is there to help.
“Try smiling,” I mutter, and I know she’s heard me in her earpiece because she shoots me a dirty look. Smiling is never her strong suit, but she gives it a try and it works. Now the women start to sidle out of the cage, toward the incoming rescue trucks.
At the hut, the two soldiers who were standing guard for Ahmed are down, asleep from our darts, and with any luck, Ahmed is snoring inside, so we can drug him too. We each have a dart gun—and a handgun, just in case. Our orders are to capture Ahmed alive and hand him over to the government forces, who’ll take credit for finding him. That’s the price we agreed to for securing the kidnapped women.
But as we are preparing to burst in on Ahmed, one of the trucks honks, again and again, as it approaches the camp. I look over, stressed. The escaped women have been running up to it, almost under its wheels, so the driver probably hit the horn on instinct—but the sheer volume of the sound is something else. There’s no way Ahmed won’t have heard it.
Anxious, Caitlin nods, and we move in—quickly, for every second we wait gives Ahmed time to turn the odds against us. The door is unlocked, and Caitlin opens it so I can enter, my handgun out in front of me. I feel Caitlin step in right behind me, solid, covering the other side of the room.
I stand there, gun out, feeling like an idiot. Because we planned, we plotted, we laid on the ground for an hour to make sure we weren’t seen coming in, and we didn’t count on this. That Ahmed might have girls in his room. The very people we’ve been sent here to save.
There are two of them, and they can’t be more than fifteen. Had Ahmed still been asleep, it might not even have mattered. But the commotion outside has clearly roused him. And those extra three seconds have lost us the element of surprise. We’re just not fast enough to get the girls out of the way before Ahmed has them in front of him, using them as handy human shields. Now my pistol is aimed at the girls instead of him while Ahmed’s own gun grazes their heads from behind.
“Stay on him,” Caitlin murmurs.
We keep our guns up and pointed at him. A standoff. But I can tell that he feels better, more in control, now that he has chips to bargain with. He is good-looking beneath the straggly beard. Somehow, I hadn’t expected that, as if the vileness of his deeds should be reflected in his face. Sweat coats his forehead as his close-set eyes watch me back. The girls are sweating too, a sheen of moisture over the bruises on their faces, and one of them starts to cry.
“Quiet!” Ahmed commands her. But she’s terrified, almost hysterical. The other girl whispers to her to stop, but the sobbing continues. It’s making Ahmed edgy. He pushes her away, and with relief, the girl runs to a corner of the room and continues crying there.
“Let us take her,” Caitlin says, trying to get at least one of them out of there.
But Ahmed’s gun sweeps away from one hostage and toward the other. Before I can move, a shot blasts out, echoing off the walls like thunder. I jump, startled. The girl in the corner hits the floor. I stare at the wall behind where she stood. It’s sprayed with blood. There is a moment of stillness. Then Caitlin makes a sort of gasping noise from her throat, and I feel my blood rise, the crimson bleeding of it blocking the rest of my sight.
Only Caitlin’s voice brings me back, just. I can feel her arm brushing my own as she talks to Ahmed, and it feels right—Caitlin’s arm and her voice—as if something good still exists in this brutal room.
“Take it easy. We’re not here to kill you,” Caitlin is saying.
My eyes glance at the dead girl on the floor. The remaining hostage pants with fear, her eyes screwed up tight, her head shaking beneath his pistol. Ahmed looks out the window, where more trucks holding government soldiers are arriving.
From above, I hear something, just a faint rustle, and into my ear and Caitlin’s comes the sound of Hala’s voice.
“I’m on the roof,” she says.
I start to breathe again. A tiny shred of hope. She must have heard the shot and our exchange and done what she does best—climb. The building is topped with a poorly thatched roof, the wall beneath brown and smooth. It seems impossible that anyone could scale that wall, but Hala has. Her nickname back home had been il bisseh—“the cat.” That was one of the first things she’d told me when she first started talking to me, in that depressing room in the detention center.
I know Hala must be struggling to get a shot on Ahmed, but I also know that her bullet is our best way out of this. I don’t want to get caught in her line of fire, so I take two steps back, nice and easy, my eyes fixed on the girl’s. If there is a God, I seriously doubt he’d let Ahmed exist. So now I’m just praying for Hala to sort this out.
“Bring him forward,” Hala’s tense voice whispers in my ear.
I watch Ahmed, his finger itching on that trigger while the girl gives a slight whimper. With my left hand I take a small grenade out of my pocket. Ahmed is wily, eyes like a fox. He sees something in my hand.
“Live grenade,” I say, and toss it gently toward him. On instinct he lets go of the hostage and moves forward to catch it. When he does, he realizes the pin is still in it—and the pistol is blasted out of his hand. Hala’s bullet takes a finger or two with it and he screams, a high whine that pierces the throbbing in my head and makes me feel better somehow. I move forward and take hold of the girl, while Caitlin knocks Ahmed to the ground with the butt of her pistol, retrieves the grenade, and handcuffs his hands and feet.
I start to become conscious of sounds again. It happens like this sometimes, when I focus hard—one sense drains away, leaving me oversensitive to another. But now the room is flooded with sound—with the whirr of helicopter blades, which must be our own chopper, sent to collect us; and the diesel throb of more trucks arriving outside. Ahmed, too, is aware, for his head turns toward the single window. Through it, I can see government troops jumping out of the trucks, dragging the drugged soldiers into the cage where the hostages had been held.
Beneath my hands, the girl’s shoulders are thin and shaking. Her eyes fearful and distrustful. I hold her gaze for a moment and put an arm around her, trying to let her know that she’ll be safe. Gently, I guide her toward the doorway and hand her over to Hala, who has appeared from the roof. Hala’s glance goes to the corpse of the other girl. She flinches, then gives me an anguished look. I get it. Another life wasted. Another image to haunt us. I reach out to grasp Hala’s shoulder. She accepts the touch, then turns away.
While Hala walks the remaining girl outside, I pull a limp, stained sheet off the bed and cover the body of the other girl as gently as I can. Her face is a mess, and I feel my stomach turn. But I don’t want to throw up—it feels disrespectful—so I look away and take a couple of breaths, and then I kneel down, touching my hand to her forehead.
It’s still warm, still real, and I check her neck for a pulse, but I know there isn’t one. Her eyes are wide open in frozen fear, and I slip my fingers down to close them. Blood, her blood, gets onto my fingers. I look at the smears of red on my hand and gently wipe them away on my jacket.
Meanwhile, Caitlin is talking to Ahmed.
“You’ll be arrested and given a fair trial—”
Ahmed interrupts her with a snort.
“They had to send women to get me.” He smirks. “I’ll be back in a year. And, little by little, I will take over this land.”
As I listen, I feel an actual pain in my chest, but it’s not physical—it’s like what they call a heavy heart. When you know someone is right but you don’t want to believe it. For the first time since we arrived here, I can see things clearly. Because we care about these kidnapped girls, we have come to help a government that is too weak to deal with terrorist factions themselves, in a country too divided. Long term, they can’t fight a man like Ahmed; persistent, ruthless, arrogant. And maybe we can’t either. If we play by rules that criminals like him just ignore.
I feel it bleeding back behind my eyes, the crimson, and it brings with it a sharp pain in my head. My skull feels like it’s bursting.
Slowly, I stand up, away from the dead girl, and I pull my gun out of its holster. I turn it on Ahmed. I’m not rushing, but every movement is deliberate, impelled by something a little bit outside of me. Caitlin stares at me, her head shaking slightly.
“No, that’s not the order.”
But the sounds around me become grainy, disconnected. Ahmed’s eyes are smirking, and in my ears there is the white noise of pulsing blood. I look at Ahmed—handcuffed, defenseless—and I hesitate to pull the trigger. And that hesitation makes him smile, because he feels safe. An arrogant smile that splits open his mouth and shows pearly teeth. Then, I don’t think of anything except how easy it is to squeeze my index finger around the trigger, how smoothly the gun kicks back, and how quickly Ahmed slumps down, his chin on his chest.
Suddenly, Caitlin is shouting, Hala is at the door, taking in the mess, and the gun is snatched from my hand. I am pushed against the wall.
“Disarm her,” Caitlin commands.
I don’t try to argue. I can’t think at all, so I obey. I place my hands up high on each side of my head and lean against the wall, while Hala uses her boot to push my feet wider apart. I feel Hala’s methodical hands moving along my sides, my back and my legs. My breathing is quick and ragged. Part of me can’t believe what I just did. I glance over my shoulder to look at Ahmed. It was a clean shot, of course, straight through his forehead. I stare at him. He was alive, and now he’s dead. How easy it was—how fast—for me to snuff out a life. It’s the first time I’ve ever done it, and, without warning, I feel sick. Bile rises in my throat, but I swallow it down with a dry heave. Taking a deep breath, I turn back to the wall and stand up tall. He raped these girls, and I just watched him kill one of them. So why should I care? And yet, somehow, I do.
“Disarm complete,” says Hala, showing Caitlin an armful of weapons. My weapons.
Hala’s eyes meet mine disapprovingly, and I pull a tiny jackknife out of my boot lining and pass it to her to prove she missed something. The petty, silent exchange with Hala gives me something else to think about for a second. But then the tiny piece of foil in my ear canal comes to life and a disembodied voice speaks sternly from thousands of miles away:
“What just happened?”
I bite my lower lip so hard that I taste blood. Caitlin touches the lapel camera on her clothes.
“Peggy, it’s hard to explain—”
“We’re hooked up to your cameras,” Peggy interrupts, echoing in my ear. “We can see he’s dead. Why?”
Caitlin hesitates. She doesn’t want to be the one to state the obvious. To drop me in a pile of shit.
“I took him out, Peggy,” I say, to save Caitlin the decision about what to say.
“Was he a threat?” asks another voice that I recognize as Kit’s. Despite the fact that she’s my mother—or maybe because she’s my mother—I immediately feel the impulse to annoy her.
“Yeah, to humanity.”
The voices in London go quiet, and I know that I’m in serious trouble.
“Clean it up,” Peggy says into our ears, and Caitlin nods to Hala, who swings a backpack off her shoulders. Reaching in, she extracts a pack of white gel blocks that look like those detergent tablets you put into dishwashers. Moving fast, but without seeming to rush, Hala covers the room, placing the blocks in all the corners and beneath Ahmed’s body. Then she takes a tube from her bag and traces a line of gel between each tablet.
“Be careful,” Caitlin tells her.
With a slight push to my shoulder, Caitlin guides me toward the door. I move quickly. Outside, our chopper waits, unmarked, blades turning, the body of it small and black against the red baked earth. Caitlin follows me outside, and we both break into a jog, heading for the open door of the chopper. We climb inside and wait, tensely, for Hala to emerge. When she does, she’s running so fast she seems to blur in the glare of the sun.
“Go, go, go!” Caitlin calls to the pilot.
As she reaches the chopper, Hala ignores my outstretched hand but reaches for Caitlin’s; she pulls her inside as the helicopter lifts smoothly away and, below us, Ahmed’s building erupts in a roar of pure, cleansing flames.
Read the rest of The Athena Protocol by Shamim Sarif when it’s released October 8th! Pre-order at https://shamimsarif.com/.