Chapter 9

 

Rashid stopped their vehicle a kilometer from the highway, determined to walk the rest of the way.  With Lucas trailing close behind, they wrestled their helmets from their backpacks, and slid them over their heads.  On their heads-up displays, two markers appeared on the highway—a semi-truck, followed by several individual personnel vehicles.  Separated by approximately eight kilometers, the two parties were converging quickly.

“So what do we do?” Lucas asked, trying to keep up.

We do nothing,” Rashid said through a secure channel, using their helmets’ comm network.  “You stay behind.  I’ll deal with the enemy.”

“What do you mean you’ll deal with them?” Lucas pressed, picking up his pace to walk beside him.  “You can’t just run in there, guns blazing!”

“I didn’t start this,” Rashid said, striding up toward the cliffs.  “They’ll die tonight.”

“This is too much,” Sera insisted to Lucas, ahead of them by a couple of meters; they passed her on their way to the cliffs by the road.  “If you don’t stop him, he’ll blow your cover.”

“I get it,” Lucas said aloud, irritated.  When he realized Rashid heard him, he added, “I get that you’re pissed.  I get that you want them dead.  But this is not the way to do it.  All you’re going to do is make things worse.”

“You didn’t grow up in a war zone!” Rashid shouted, stopping Lucas dead in his tracks.  The two of them stared into each other’s opaque visor.  “You don’t know a thing about this world or what these people are capable of—what they do to others for no reason than to serve an imaginary god!”

His heart pounding out of his chest, Lucas thought that Rashid might turn on him in that moment.  They both then heard a chime in their helmets, indicating that the first of the two approaching parties—the semi-truck, which their visual feedback systems registered as carrying a number of humanoid heat signatures—passed, rocketing northward.  IS pursuers were not far behind.

Rashid turned back to the road and pressed on.  Marching through the dusty terrain, under the full moon and swept by the cold wind, he moved at a leisurely pace.  At the ridge overlooking the road, he looked south, down the freeway, through his visor’s augmented optics.  Three heavy assault vehicles were approaching fast, filled with what the Talos-skin estimated were up to four men each.

Seeing Rashid perched at the apex of the cliff, Lucas stood transfixed.  Rashid was right—he knew nothing of this world.  But Rashid knew everything about it.  He knew it from experience, having become a part of it.  Taking another look back up at him, for a moment Lucas wondered if this might have been what it would have felt like to see Talos lapping Crete.

“I’m not just gonna walk away, Rashid,” Lucas said, stepping in front of him.

“I don’t care about the UN,” Rashid said.  “Perhaps they were right.  The Iraqis, the Paks, the Islamists—whoever you want to blame for all this.  Maybe the West did take advantage of our lands, our people.  Maybe.  But I don’t care.  I won’t let it end like this.  I won’t let them take my people—not the West, not IS.”

Rashid attempted to sidestep Lucas, but Lucas held him back by his shoulder.  They locked eyes through their visors before Lucas finally mustered the courage to speak.

“I am thinking of your people, Rashid,” he said.  “You think I give a shit about what happens to NATO or what the Muzzies think of them?  But it’s not just about the UN getting busted—it’s worse.  You’ll blow the fact that not only were they here against the Stockholm Convention, but that they brought a psychic with them.”  They both glanced back at the incoming vehicles, still a few klicks away.  “I don’t know what you’ve got planned, but I don’t imagine it’ll be quiet.  They’ll radio their people.  And even if they don’t, their people will want answers; they’ll ask questions and shake down the people closest to the event.”  A jolt in Rashid’s frame told Lucas he was getting through.  “Who says they’ll just blame the Kurds or NATO?  What if they go after your people instead—when you’re not here to protect them?”

The two stood in silence for several seconds.  Lucas kept an anxious eye on the incoming IS pursuers, while Rashid remained still.  After a moment, however, he stirred.

“What would you have me do?”

“I haven’t experienced what you have,” Lucas confessed, “but I’ve learned some lessons in my own life.  One is that you can’t solve all your problems with brute force.”

“They’ll kill my people,” Rashid said.  “The UN will not intervene, and they can’t—”

“I didn’t say we let these guys off the hook,” Lucas interrupted.  “What I’m saying is, if we’re going to do this, we need to be subtle.  Now, we’re running out of time.  So are you gonna trust me or not?”

Rashid took another moment to think, though he knew their time was indeed short.  Yet in that brief moment, he found himself looking farther into Lucas than his visor might otherwise allow.  He couldn’t see Lucas, but he could sense something familiar, something Rashid had nestled within himself.  Finding security in that familiarity, he asked, “What do we do?”

***

Rifles loaded and cocked, the groups of four prepared for easy pickings.  The peshmerga escorting the Yazidis out of the country had only small arms, plus a number of women and children.  Their weapons would be tantamount to sparklers compared to what this IS force had.  And for everything else their armored vehicles would serve as insurance against any surprises.

Rocking in their seats, their hearts were calmer than the road.  For them, this was not a simple strike.  This was God’s work.  There was always something awe-inducing about placing one’s will in line with something greater.  Those who would not embrace the message which God had granted the world would receive the shame they deserved, until they either realized their need to submit to the creator of the world, or they broke under their creator’s righteous heel.

Despite their settled nerves, a rapid beat or two pounded in their chests when the first wind rocked their vehicles.

Rashid and Lucas stood on either side of the road.  Ahead of them was open terrain, sprinkled with loose loads of sand.  Double-checking their targets’ distance, finding they were still out a ways, they began.

Lifting their hands, they focused on the natural world around them, on everything that wasn’t anchored to the earth.  They took note of the breeze, and of the countless granules piled in unimaginable numbers—all the elements in their command.  With one hand, they agitated the wind, crashing the air into itself.  With the other hand, they wafted the sand, kicking it into the pulsing atmosphere.

Thick with sand, the air grew violent, swirling around Rashid and Lucas.  The winds whittled at the cliffs and ridges, adding to the airborne arsenal.  And once the air was sufficiently dense, they intensified its force, unleashing a storm.

The lead vehicle rocked, then its front tires lifted, spinning it.  The second vehicle swerved out of the way, then skidded to stop, buoying in the wind.  All three vehicles attempted to get back onto the road, but the winds grew more unruly.  Visibility was gone, and the sand gouged their cars’ armor.

A brief exchange was shared over the radio, which Rashid and Lucas intercepted.  Translating from Arabic, Rashid conveyed the conversation to Lucas.

The wind was too strong, coming in from the north.

Still a mission, but there was no way they would make it farther, not like this.

How in all Creation could wind be so strong?

Had any seen such powerful winds?

It was as if the Devil himself had come against them!

Briefly they considered pushing through, then their voices were overtaken by the screech of their vehicles being scarred by razor winds.  No matter how far they drove, the storm refused to let up, as if the winds were following them.

The decision was made to scrap the pursuit and to fall back; their holy cause would rage on, much like this storm, only—not this night.  Yet as they fled southward, they watched the storm stretch to the east and west.  Staring into the dark atmosphere, they wondered among themselves if this might be God’s will.  Yet the longer they stared, the more they questioned whether they were watching the hand of God at work; staring into the dark wall, they could not help but feel as if they were being chased by the Devil himself—by the god of the kafur for whom they had come.

Though they shunned such blasphemies from their hearts, for a nanosecond the thought fired through their heads, aligned in the pattern of one heretical consideration: that they had been in the midst of a war of gods, and their own had lost to that of the Yazidis—to Malik Taus, the Peacock Angel.

***

Logan rushed back to the Q’s side.  Forcing Aguirre and the rest of his team into hazmat suits, each of them tethered, they proceeded inside.  Sliding past thin strands of muscle, supported by packed innards beneath their feet, they followed the rope Logan had left to mark his path.

There wasn’t much time, but he would make it work.

With a number of circular saws, they severed the spines one at a time, cutting them where they met the wall and a few inches from where they connected to the brain.  They bagged and boxed each spine before extricating the brain.  Carefully, they lowered the organ into an insulated container.

Logan’s watch began to beep, signaling that their time was up.

Shoving their way back, following the line, each member of the science team grew more anxious.  Thirty minutes was an estimation; no one could say if IS might show up sooner.  All they knew was that, having secured more than what they had come for, their primary objective was to now see the samples out of rebel-held Iraq as quickly as possible.

A loud rush came from outside the Q.  Logan had expected the shouts of soldiers preparing for the coming attack, but he couldn’t hear any voices—only wind.

Stepping outside, he was grateful for his mask.  The air was dark with sand.  He couldn’t see more than a couple feet ahead of himself; even the floodlights they had pointed at the Q seemed dim.  Logan and his team stood still for a moment, feeling entirely lost.

A voice called out over the winds, a gruff baritone.  A burly shadow approached them—a man, head wrapped, wearing goggles.  Logan knew the voice belonged to Tarek.

“What’s going on?” Logan shouted to him.  “Where did this storm come from?”

“It just blew in,” Tarek shouted back, bringing his face close to Logan’s.  “Did you retrieve your sample?”

“We’re done here.”  Logan nodded to the large container he was helping to carry.  “Where do we go to evacuate?”

“There’s been a change of plans, Doctor,” Tarek said.  “We received a new report.  My scouts say the storm has forced IS to fall back.”

***

Rashid and Lucas rushed back to their vehicle, tore over the cliff and onto the road, then sped northward.  They followed the markers on their AR displays until they found a semi-truck on the side of the road.  The storm was weak at this distance, though the smell of sand was distinct, and anyone standing outside could feel granules in their teeth.

Whether out of confidence or exhaustion, a number of women stood at the back of the trailer, surrounded by a handful of peshmerga.  The women and children were dressed in white and earthy colors, ragged materials which they had worn as prisoners; some wore old fatigues given to them by their military escort, and old kerchiefs over their heads and shoulders.  Heavy blankets had been distributed; though this time of year brought no snow to Kurdistan, the nights were enough to freeze anyone to their bones.

Pulling over to the opposite side of the road, Rashid told Lucas to remain where he was, then removed his helmet and stepped out.  Two men in body armor met him in the middle of the road, carrying machine guns.  When they saw his face, they waved him over.  Lucas listened as Rashid shared a conversation with the soldiers in Arabic before returning to the vehicle, knocking on Lucas’ window.

“We’ll escort them to the border,” he said, wearing an unconscious smile.  “Are you all right with that?”

The question wasn’t so much Rashid asking his opinion, but more like asking whether he was going to come along or not.  Even so, Lucas was surprised that he would even ask him.

“Sounds good to me,” he finally replied, letting Rashid run back to the trailer and the Kurdish soldiers to confirm.

He watched as Rashid was embraced by a number of the rescued at the end of the trailer.  Even in the dark, he could sense their gratitude, and even their hope—the poignant feelings of those who had suffered the polar opposite for longer than he would like to consider.  Each met Rashid like a dear brother, some caught in tears, others simply thanking him in their shared tongue.

Lucas couldn’t help but smile.  “They really do love him.”

“Do you think they know everything he’s done?” Sera asked from the backseat.  “What he’s had to do to protect them…?”

Watching the rescued people hold Rashid, Lucas said, “I think so.  I don’t know anything about this life, but Rashid does.  And so do they.”

“Maybe Logan was on to something,” Sera said.  “Only, it’s interesting to see it.”

“See what?”

“Talos—someone who really fights for others.”

Lucas noticed a flash inside his visor.  Putting his helmet back on, he found a notification—a radio transmission through a secure channel.  His HUD tracked his eye movement to answer the call.  A small window opened, and a line vibrated across his visor as a voice came through.

“Echo-Terrathree, do you read?  Repeat, do you read?”

He recognized the voice—Sam.

“Y-yeah, I’m here,” Lucas replied.

A relieved sigh billowed from the other end of the channel.  “Thank God.  We’ve been trying to reach you.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”  Lucas’ heart fluttered when he reconsidered the fact that he and Rashid had in essence gone AWOL.  “I’m here now.”

“Glad to hear it,” Sam said.  “I take it everything is all right on your end.”

With that question, Lucas took it that Sam was privy to what they had been up to.  “That’s right,” he said, taking another look at Rashid and the celebrating soldiers and rescued prisoners.  “All’s well that ends well over here.  And you guys?”

“We had a bit of scare, but it seems everything’s worked out for us, too.”  Sam paused for a moment.  “We were pretty fortunate such a huge storm blew in when it did, weren’t we?”

Lucas smiled.  “Yeah, that was a pretty lucky break.”

“You should come back soon.  We’re almost ready to leave.”

Taking another look out the window, Lucas said, “Not yet.  Rashid and I still have to take care of something.  We’ll meet you in Kurdistan.”

Sam weighed this, then said, “There’s a beacon on your suit.  Activate it once you’re ready to rendezvous.”

“Got it.”

“And, Lucas,” Sam said, “it goes without saying, but… good work.”

Caught off guard, Lucas scrambled to reply.  “Th-thanks.  It was nothing.”

“We’ll see you soon,” Sam said before closing the channel.

“Yeah,” Lucas managed to say.  “See you soon.”

***

Rashid followed the semi-truck closely as they drove to the Iraqi-Kurdistan border.  In the distance they could see abandoned outposts and other ghost towns, a generally uninhabited buffer carved between Kurdistan and rebel-held Iraq.

After several minutes of driving, Lucas spoke.

“You don’t have to answer, but… there’s something I’d like to ask.”  He watched Rashid from the corner of his eye.  “Why did you want to do this?  Don’t get me wrong, I understand why this would be important to you.  But you knew all the risks that were involved in this one rescue alone…  What made you want to go along with it anyway?”

Rashid fixed his attention on the semi-truck ahead.  Seeing its passengers alive and well, a lump in his chest began to dissolve.

“I imagine you know a good deal about me,” Rashid said.

“I know you’re Yazidi,” Lucas said, taking another sidelong glance at him.  “And I know you spent much of your life fighting IS…”

With a deep breath, Rashid explained.

“When I was very young, my father was drafted into the Kurdish military, when IS first invaded.  He died shortly after.  IS reached my home, Sinjar, and captured me and my mother…”  His eyes narrowed.  “They did horrible things to us.  For longer than I could tell.  Until they killed my mother...  The night she died, I discovered that I was psychic.  And that night, I killed for the first time—every last man who had held us in that awful place.  And I freed the other prisoners.”

His eyes on the road, Rashid saw the camp in what was once Iran.  He could hear the screams and cries of the survivors, of men with covered faces roaring at them in Arabic, assaulting them in unimaginable ways.  The prisoners were stacked like firewood for hours, days, suffocating in the palpable haze of body heat and human waste.  Were any of them to speak, they would receive a swift kick to the side or jaw.  Many were taken, their feet barely scraping the ground as they were carried off, some never seen again.  Any who returned never spoke.

Most of all, he remembered the final night in that prison camp: hours after they had torn his mother from him, stamping out their screams with boots and rifle stocks, he discovered her fate.  In that moment the world went black, and he came to himself.  It was as if he had consumed the world itself.  By will and thought alone, he set the camp ablaze, freed the captives, and ravaged their captors.  When the day was through, the camp was in ashes, the IS fighters were mangled, and the prisoners were fixated on the boy who commanded God’s creation with tears—tears which quenched the fires of their hell, lighting new fires in their place.

Rashid rehearsed to himself the oath he had taken that night: an oath made on the flames, vowing that if no one would protect his people—he would.  He led the survivors of that prison camp on foot across Iran and Iraq, all the way to Lalish, in Kurdistan, the city marking where the Supreme God began the creation of the world.  There they worshiped, thanking the King of the Angels.  And there he met with Baba Sheik, who told Rashid the Yazidis were to be a people of kindness and generosity; Rashid told him he would be their sword, steeping himself in wickedness for their sake.  He never set foot on that sacred land again.  He spent every day thereafter in Iraq and Iran.

Lucas listened intently, not uttering a word, finding his story familiar.  The particulars were worlds apart, yet Lucas couldn’t help but feel its spirit was that which inhabited his own past.  His shoulders sinking, he thought of his family.  He had never set foot in the Middle East until roughly twenty-four hours before, but he wondered if he might know more about Rashid’s world than they presumed.

“NATO found you four years ago, then?” Lucas asked.  “After that Q attacked?”

“That’s right.”  Rashid peered up at the sky, recollecting the great manta ray-like creature that had eclipsed the stars.  “I was approached by Samuel Walker.”

“So he wanted to meet you, then?  The psychic who took out a Q.”

“The UN sent him,” Rashid said.  “Through him, NATO made me an offer: in exchange for my service, NATO would coordinate with UN member states to evacuate Yazidis from Kurdistan and Syria, settling them as refugees throughout Europe and Canada.  Their only condition was that the deal was to remain a secret, as was my past—they believed it would do more harm than good if the rest of the world knew they had recruited someone like me.”

“But the UN couldn’t afford to be seen doing favors for the Yazidis,” Lucas said, reasoning things out for himself.  “It would come off as a violation of the Stockholm Convention to use NATO to get them out of the Middle East.”

“The Stockholm Convention prevents the UN from interfering in the affairs of any nation that isn’t a member of the General Assembly,” Rashid said.  “Even within member states, their influence is to be minimal.  They can shuttle refugees from Kurdistan, but they can’t set foot in Iraq or Iran, where so many are still held prisoner.  As long as these people are still out here—” he nodded at the truck— “my arrangement with NATO means nothing.  No one was coming to save them.”

“That’s why you wanted to help,” Lucas concluded.  “To make sure they made back it to Kurdistan.”  He bowed his head.  “Rashid, I’m sorry about before, for trying to stop you.”

Lucas’ apology left Rashid taken aback, though he attempted not to let it show.

“I can’t imagine what it must be like,” Lucas said, “to know your people were in trouble and that the UN wouldn’t step in…”  His brow furrowed.  “But that they would violate the Stockholm Convention to get to the Q…”

Rashid said, “One learns to let go of what one cannot control, and to responsibly control what one can.”

“But you risked your agreement with NATO for this,” Lucas insisted.

Rashid was unable to hide his surprise anymore.  “I didn’t expect you to have such a grasp of the situation,” he admitted.  Another faint smile ebbed across his face.  “I’m grateful for your help.  This might not have gone as smoothly without you.”

They continued their drive in mutual silence, neither feeling any longer as if they had to say anything.  Then Rashid spoke once more.

“What NATO and IS call me—Rashid Qasim,” he said, “that isn’t my real name.”  He drew a deep breath.  “I adopted it to hide the fact that I’m Yazidi from the Khilafah.  I thought, if I was an Arab rescuing women and children—Christians, Jews, Yazidis, dissident Muslims, those they kept alive—then maybe they wouldn’t focus their violence on my people any more than they already had.”

Listening to every word, Lucas couldn’t help but wonder at Rashid’s openness.  “Not for nothing, but… why are you telling me this?”

Drawing another breath, Rashid appeared entirely resigned, possessing a new hint of gentleness.  “If we’re going to work together,” he said, “we’ll need to learn to trust each other.  And after tonight… I believe you deserve more trust than I presumed.”

Wrestling against stupefaction, Lucas marveled at how different Rashid now seemed.  The person he had met in Tel Aviv had been standoffish and reserved, but this one—this Rashid—had taken a risk.

Tentatively, Lucas asked, “If Rashid’s not your real name, then…”

 “My real name is Soran—Soran bin Çol.”

Each word fluttered from his lips, but something in his voice told Lucas that Rashid had not spoken this name aloud in a very long time.

“Nice to meet you, Soran,” Lucas said, smiling awkwardly.  “My name’s Lucas Weir.”

One last smile wafted across the young Yazidi’s lips, remaining longer than the others.

“It’s nice to meet you, too, Lucas.”

***

The semi-truck passed the border, followed by Rashid and Lucas.  Together, they drove further into Kurdish territory, ensuring they were far from the no-man’s-land.  About thirty minutes past the border, they pulled over.  The Yazidis would be taken the rest of the way through Kurdistan, ultimately to a Syrian air base, then to Greece to be divvied up throughout Europe.  For now, however, finally safe, they decided on a moment’s respite.

Joined by Rashid and Lucas, the soldiers helped the women and children out of the trailer.  The Yazidis and their guards then separated.

Lucas watched the women and children sing hymns in their native Kurdish, perhaps offering thanks for deliverance.  Rashid stood at a short distance from them, his helmet removed, his head bowed.  At first, Lucas thought he might be praying, but something about his demeanor did not appear prayerful so much as humbled.  He wondered if Rashid had indeed been so warmly welcomed in all this time by his own, or if he had been expelled and since seen as something like a bearable excommunicate.  Regardless, nothing about his bow appeared superficial or superstitious.  This was something deeper, which elicited respect from Lucas, who was more prone to mockery than respect when it came to religious practice.

Most of the peshmerga contingent gathered across the street.  He had seen this only once before, in Indiana among some of the workers he knew, but he recognized the performance immediately.  The soldiers used a canteen to wash their hands.  They then stood straight, bowed thrice at the waist, stood back up, knelt, then sat back; they prostrated themselves, then sat back again.  As they did so, many of them muttered in Arabic, some reciting verses from the Quran; the rest remained silent.

“Strange, isn’t it?” Sera asked in her gentle though direct way.  “These Yazidis were imprisoned and nearly killed by men who believe their religion demands that they subjugate or purge all others outside their group.  But here are these men, rescuing those same Yazidis, perhaps because they also believe their religion demands it.”  She turned from the praying soldiers, eyeing Lucas.  “How do you make sense of it?”

Her question was more honest than prodding, though it left Lucas at a loss.  “Life’s strange,” he shrugged.  “Not like it matters.  It’s like asking why some people get inspired by Tolkien while others go for Crichton or Tolstoy.  People can get completely different interpretations from the same novel—who’s to say religion would be any different?”

“People get quite a lot from reading, even when they know they’re reading is fiction,” she said.  “Do you consider what these men are doing an empty gesture?”

“It was always empty for me,” Lucas said, attempting to remain aware that anyone who walked in on this conversation would find only him speaking to himself.  “Clearly it’s not empty to them.”

“I wonder what gives things like prayers or hymns meaning for these people,” Sera said.  “If it doesn’t elicit anything from you, but everything from them—what’s the difference?”

“It’s probably because they believe someone’s listening when they pray.”

Footsteps caused Lucas to turn on a heel.  He found one of the soldiers sidling up to him, smiling politely.  “You speak English, then?” the soldier asked.

“Uh, yeah,” Lucas said, sizing up the man.

“American?”

“Just a guy.”  Lucas was unsure how much he could reveal, not wanting to risk blowing their cover, if he hadn’t already.  The soldier seemed amused by his dodge, however.

“You are among friends here,” he said with a smile.  “You and Rashid are heroes in our eyes.  We do not know what you did, but we are grateful.”  He extended a hand, a gesture he thought might ease the young American’s nerves.  “My name is Ephrem.”

“Lucas.”  He took Ephrem’s hand.  “Good to meet you.”

“You, as well,” Ephrem said, watching the Yazidis and his fellow soldiers with his new friend.  “You do not pray?”

Not wanting to offend him, Lucas managed to say, “I guess I don’t have a God to pray to.  Are you… religious, then?”

Reaching into his vest, Ephrem pulled out a small object—a worn, wooden cross, with a tarnished-silver savior, his head raised and his eyes open.  Staring down at the old crucifix, Ephrem said, “You do not believe something saved us this night.”

“We were very fortunate,” Lucas said, still trying to dodge the topic.

Ephrem pushed a little further, though his kind smile remained.  “You do not believe in God.”

Cooling his nerves with a dry laugh, Lucas said, “My father was a preacher, but…  I guess God was for my parents.”

“A preacher,” Ephrem repeated.  “Protestant?  Catholic?  I suppose not Catholic, or he would not have a son.”

Lucas chuckled with Ephrem, then thought it over, hitting a snag in his memory.  “I don’t remember, actually…  It was a long time ago.”

Ephrem put a firm hand on Lucas’ shoulder, his smile growing—a grin of celebration.  He looked out at his fellow soldiers, who were finishing their prayers, and the Yazidis with Rashid, who had completed their hymns.

“I suppose we all make sense of things in different ways,” Ephrem said.  “We turn to our prayers and scripture hoping they will give us direction, especially when the world is most chaotic.  But people do not often see things the same way, perhaps because there is no way for us to see things as they really are—only as we are.”  He chuckled at the thought.

“If you do not believe in God,” he told Lucas, “at least believe this: these women and children, and my men… they did not save themselves.  Whether you or Rashid were sent by God, or whether God saved us, one truth remains.”  He lifted a single finger, still beaming.  “We could not save ourselves, but someone else did.  And that is reason enough to be grateful.”

Lucas almost mirrored Ephrem’s smile.  He looked back at Iraq to the south, then Kurdistan in the north.  He found Sera watching him from afar.

***

Rashid and Lucas sat quietly on the hood of their vehicle, occasioning glances up at the moon and thousands of stars, waiting.

The Kurds had departed before Rashid and Lucas activated their transponders.  Tarek and his men showed up with Sam, Heinrich, Logan, and the others almost an hour later in the same three personnel carriers they had taken to Baa’j.

Tarek approached Rashid.  “Thank you.  For everything.”

Rashid nodded, though he appeared sterner than Tarek expected.  “I will not be here to save them again.  I’m trusting you and the Kurds to take care of my people.”

Tarek straightened up, growing as stern.  “Our people.  And we will.”

Lucas ran on ahead, finding Logan first, who was grinning from ear to ear.  He was lugging around a heavy case, as if completely unwilling to part with it.

“I guess you found what you were looking for,” Lucas said.

“Damn right,” Logan proclaimed.

It was then that Lucas recoiled at his smell.  “What is that?” he nearly shouted as Rashid joined them, assaulted by the same stench.  “It’s like aged roadkill and mildew!”

“Cheeky for a kid who didn’t spend a day crawling through a Q,” Logan retorted.

The three of them descended jovially from there, under the distant gaze of Sam and Heinrich.  From the edge of the group, they observed how much looser Lucas was than a few hours before; even Rashid seemed more at ease.

“Looks like they’re getting along now,” Sam said, relieved.  Heinrich, however, was not nearly as pleased.  “What’s wrong?”

“I wonder if this was why the Security Council sent them,” he grunted.  “If they intended this…  If they knew this would happen…”

“If that were true,” Sam said, “then all they did was enhance their relationship.”

“But this seems like a hard-and-fast way of gaining something so trivial,” Heinrich said.  His scowl deepened.  “If this was the UN’s intent...”

“Yes, if,” Sam said.  “If…”

Watching Rashid and Lucas from a distance, Sam and Heinrich both ruminated, neither of them as sure as they had been a day ago.