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The New Destroyer: Dead Reckoning
1He had never had a cold. Not so much as a sniffle in his forty-four years of life.When he was little, a virulent strain of measles had attacked the village. Many had died, most of them children. He had watched the bodies paraded past his window, mourners shrieking, dressed in black. In his parents' house he was healthy and happy and wondered why he could not go outside to play.He had never had a childhood experience with the flu virus, which was probably just as well. There was no Sudafed, TheraFlu, NyQuil or the thousand other palliatives that were available in every corner drug store in the West. The only thing in the village to relieve influenza symptoms was aspirin and even that was not available most of the time. When one got sick in his small village in northern Iraq, one either toughed it out or died. But, thank Allah, flu was not a problem for Mustafa Mohammed and the rest of his family. They simply never got sick.As a boy he had once stepped into a nest of cobras andbeen bitten a dozen times. The other adults were certain he would die but his father knew better. Mustafa sloughed off the deadly venom as if the poisonous snakes had injected him with water. The fang marks had taken a little while to heal. Mustafa remembered that they had itched a little.Measles, mumps, chicken pox. Mustafa had never had any of them, nor had his siblings or father or any of his father's blood relatives as far back as anyone could recall.One time there was some funny bug in the water. It was so small that you could not see it with your eyes but it had made everyone in town go from both ends for weeks. All their playmates were ill so Mustafa and his siblings played alone until the Red Cross came and fixed the problem by pouring something in the well.The real test came after the end of the first Gulf War when the glorious leader of the great Republic of Iraq flooded Mustafa's small village with nerve gas.Half the village population died overnight. The rest crawled through the poisoned dust, longing for death.When the television crew from Frontline came to do a film documentary on the village a decade after the gassing, they found victims blinded, subject to spasms, crippled. They were shocked to find that the effects of the gas had leached into DNA and was being passed down to children born long after the attack. The crew filmed infants with missing limbs or limbs growing where limbs should not grow. The saddest were the children born with only brain stems who were living lives in permanent vegetative states. The television crew filmed everything they could find and then bundled up their cameras and film and left forever. They never asked about the boarded-up house at the edge of the square, the building that had housed three generations of a family that could not fall ill.After the nerve gas attack, news of the family that was impervious to the toxin reached Baghdad. When further research revealed that no member of the family had ever fallen ill and that all members of this one unique family hadlived in perfect health until extreme old age, trucks came to the village to cart away Mustafa and his relatives.The family with the miraculous inability to suffer sickness even with chemical bombs raining down on their roof was brought to a special facility outside the capital and turned over to the great leader's finest medical minds.One of the first things the great leader's brilliant doctors had done was chop off Mustafa's father's hand with a big knife. Afterward, they sat around smoking cigarettes to see if it would grow back. They waited two hours.As Mustafa's father screamed and wept, one of the scientists finally spoke into a tape recorder that by Western standards had gone out-of-date with the eight-track, but which was state of the art in the great leader's Iraq."Limbs amputated do not regenerate."The scientists decided that perhaps they had gone too far with a full amputation. Deciding to apply rigorous scientific discipline, they used hammers to give Mustafa's father a compound fracture in his forearm. They studied the broken bones protruding through the skin to see if they would mend before their eyes. But not only did the shattered bones fail to mend, the whining old patient threw a bone fragment into his bloodstream and died in a matter of minutes."Subject appears dead from complications resulting from second procedure. Observation continues."Perhaps the miracle of this family's alleged perfect health was only manifested when the body was pushed to its limits. The patriarch, poor old dead Hunsien, could not be pushed any further. Teams of doctors watched the body in shifts but when the stink grew too strong, it was determined that the first test subject had failed them."First subject's moribund state persists after thirty-six hours. Moving on to second subject."Mustafa's mother had been fed feet-first into a vat of acid. Quickly dipped, in and out, like french fries in a decadent American fast food establishment.Mustafa and his aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters heardhis mother's screams from the little cages where they were being warehoused like lab animals.Mustafa's older relatives tried to explain that it was only those of Mustafa's bloodline who possessed the inability to become ill, not those who married into the family. But the doctors were efficient and would not be told how to be scientists by a bunch of weeping peasants in dog cages.So away family members went to Allah, stabbed, bludgeoned, shot, drowned, strangled. When there were only ten men left the doctors finally moved on to nerve and viral agents and all manner of toxins.The scientists had not believed the stories about this family were true, especially as the pile of corpses in the mass grave outside of town grew. But the great leader had charged them to learn what protected these people so that he might obtain the secret of perfect health for himself. And so they moved from bullets and blades down to things that could only be viewed under the lens of a microscope.At last, after weeks of testing, these men of science discovered that the stories were true.Men who had been sealed in glass tanks flooded with anthrax were as healthy coming out as they had been going in.Sarin did not kill these strange men from the north. One died when he was exposed to mustard gas, but that was only because the doctors had gone to lunch and left him in the locked booth too long and he died of dehydration. Another asphyxiated in a sealed tank filled with smallpox when they forgot to flip the little switch that fed him oxygen.And so they went through the entire family, with little accidents that would here and there claim another life because while science was perfect scientists were not, until only two were left, Mustafa and his older brother Achmed."They will murder us too, Mustafa," Achmed whispered at night to his brother from his dog cage.The doors of all the other cages were open now. The room where they were warehoused seemed empty. All oftheir relatives, from elderly Uncle Karim all the way down to little two-year-old Samir, were dead."They will not take our lives," Mustafa insisted."Of course they will," Achmed said. "They have slaughtered us one by one, Mustafa. They are not going to spare us. We are not special.""I am." And Mustafa giggled.Achmed was used to such behavior from his brother. Mustafa had always been an idiot with no sense of the world around him. The great leader had poisoned their town and murdered their family members one by one, yet Mustafa still bowed reverently whenever the bloodthirsty maniac's name was mentioned. And even though Allah seemed to have abandoned them all at the moment when they needed Him most, Mustafa insisted on reading from the family Koran daily, his fat lips moving as he carefully sounded out the big words.He was reading the Koran now. Achmed had read from the same holy book as a child. The book had belonged to great-great-grandfather Abdullah. The goat leather cover was reddish brown and frayed at the edges. The pages were gilded with raised Arabic writing decorating cover and spine. A single rip in the corner of the front cover had been stitched closed with Chinese silk by grandmother Habbab.Mustafa turned a page, careful not to wrinkle the ancient yellow parchment."Mustafa," Achmed began slowly, for when one had something important to say to his brother it was important to speak slowly so that he understood it all. "We have none of us wanted to tell you this because we were sensitive to your feelings. But since we are both going to die, it is time you learned something important. You are stupid, Mustafa. You are not as bad as those poor souls born with bad brains who must be cared for all their lives. Unlike them, you can function in the world, Mustafa. You have worked, and you can read and speak well enough. But when it comes to thinking, you are lost. Yes, you are stupid, Mustafa. And even dumber than I thought if you think we are special and will somehow be spared thecertain, terrible deaths these people in the white coats have planned for us.""I did not say we would be spared, Achmed, I said that I would be spared. I do not know your fate, only mine."Achmed shook his head in pity. "How do you know?"Mustafa pushed his Koran aside and crept to the edge of his cage. Looking around to make certain no one was eavesdropping, he pressed his blubbery lips between the bars. "Because, brother--" Mustafa's voice slipped to a barely audible whisper--"the Prophet came to me last night while you slept and told me that I was destined for greatness."For Achmed it was not even worth arguing with Mustafa. He said nothing the rest of the night and did not say good-bye to his brother when the scientists collected them both for more experiments the next morning.More poisons were tested on them in the ensuing months. At one point Achmed was told that thanks to his family, a new virus had been developed. Rather than use Achmed's immunity to illness to heal, the scientists had used it to develop something that would kill on contact. This supervirus was undetectable, unkillable, and could be concentrated in small, lethal doses. A single smuggled dose could be hidden easily on an individual and remain dormant until activated. Once the supervirus was active, it could obliterate an entire city in a matter of hours. Best of all, the West had no idea the substance even existed.Achmed and Mustafa were allowed out of their cages. They were not free to leave the complex but they could move about inside it. The two brothers were put to work as janitors. Mustafa accepted his broom with joy."Why are you always singing?" Achmed asked his brother as they swept the laboratory where the supervirus had been perfected. "Stop your singing, crazy one.""I cannot help but sing," Mustafa said, "for the Prophet has told me that my time will soon be here.""End this now," Achmed snapped, so loudly some of the scientists glanced at the dirty middle-aged man with thebroom. Achmed lowered his voice. "You are out of your mind. The Prophet has not come to see you, fool.""Yes, Achmed, he has. And I can prove it.""Then do so, fool."A gleeful smile on his face, Mustafa used his broom handle to point across the room."He is here now."
A man had just entered the lab. Achmed had not seen him at the complex before. He was tall, well over six feet, and walked rigidly as if his spine were an iron rod. He was thin, skinnier than any man Achmed had ever seen. His skin was as pale as bleached bone and his thinness lent him the aspect of an ambulatory skeleton. He wore a long black lab coat over a deep black suit. It was the only lab coat of that color Achmed had seen in all the time he had been held in captivity in the secret laboratory. So gaunt was his face that to look upon it was like looking at a living skull. Thinning white hair brushed his collar.A pair of fat black rats scurried around the man's feet. Rats were frequently used in testing when the supply of human beings ran low. Occasionally they were known to escape from their cages, as these must have. The rats, their fur mottled and their tails long and pink, were fat from feasting on the flesh of the dead. Achmed had never seen rodents so brazen as these. The other scientists recoiled at the animals and shouted for the researchers to catch them but if their presence bothered the skeletal man his face did not show concern. The rats played around the hems of his robes.The cadaver-like man conferred with the scientists, and seemed to be a source of great wisdom for the eager attention they gave him. When he glanced over at the two Mohammed brothers and smiled, Achmed felt something cold and strangely familiar wrap around his thudding heart.Achmed tripped over his own broom handle in his haste to leave the lab. Later, Mustafa asked his brother why he had seemed so frightened to see the Prophet."Because I know this thing even if I have never before laid eyes upon it. If it speaks to you again, ignore it, Mustafa. Run away from it as fast as you can.""I cannot ignore the words of the Prophet.""That is not the Prophet, Mustafa. Stay away from it."But for the first time in his life, Mustafa could not listen to his brother's advice. Achmed was usually clever but this time he was mistaken. When his brother described what this being looked like to him, Mustafa laughed."A skeleton? Now who is feeble-minded?" Mustafa said. "He has a face of unsurpassed beauty. A perfect Arab face. His skin is not white, but healthy brown. And you say he has no beard but his beard is thick and black. You must have been looking at someone else, brother."But Achmed knew he had seen the true face of the being that was not the Prophet and that his foolish brother was only seeing that which he wanted to see.Eventually the weapons programs were put on hold. The Americans were holding one of their fool elections again and Iraq's great leader wanted to remain quiet during this time. Despite Achmed's warning, Mustafa continued to speak with the Prophet. Achmed heard them some nights whispering, saw the figure draped in black at his brother's bedside. The loose rats of the weapons complex danced at the hem of his robes.Achmed asked for and was granted quarters on the other side of the complex, as far away from his brother as possible. Achmed was not present in Mustafa's dirty little room on that fateful night when the Prophet came to visit his chosen and most faithful disciple."You have to act fast," the Prophet said. He had entered Mustafa's quarters without opening the door. One moment he was not there, the next he was standing before his loyal follower. "They're shutting down the ... oh, get up off your knees, for heaven's sake.""Forgive me, Prophet," said Mustafa, and he scampered obediently to his feet."Old mustache-puss is getting cold feet. He's shutting down the whole shooting match for a year or two. All those beautiful dead bodies are being put at risk because he's scared the Americans are going to elect someone who might get the nerve to finally drop a blockbuster on his palace."Mustafa had never seen the Prophet agitated. For an instant, the beatific visage seemed to phase out, replaced by a ghastly white skull. It looked much like what Achmed had described all those months ago. But as soon as he saw the image, it was gone. A trick of the light."What must I do, Holy One?"When the Prophet laid out his instructions, Mustafa did not know what to make of them."Why must I do this, Blessed Greatness?" Mustafa asked."Because mine is the name of death and death delights me." When he saw the confusion on Mustafa's face, the man in black shook his head and sighed, his breath like a thousand rotting souls. "Because Allah is great and I'm telling you to do it. Is that what you want to hear? And take that with you." A slender finger aimed at Mustafa's bed.Mustafa dutifully gathered up the object that the Prophet had pointed to and hustled out into the hallway.It was night and no one but the ghosts of Mustafa's relatives was left in the complex. The Prophet knew all the codes that Mustafa needed to punch into the special keypads to get into the most secret rooms.The lab that housed the supervirus was being dismantled. Decals of skulls on walls and doors warned of the danger. In a sealed plastic room at the rear of the laboratory, Mustafa found a large fish tank. The rectangular tank sat in the middle of the cement floor. It had two short metal and two long Plexiglas sides. Special tubes and wires ran from one metal side to monitor and regulate temperature and other environmental factors. The lid was sealed with a gummy substance, like moist rubber.The man in black accompanied Mustafa into the special sealed room."Open it up," the man in black commanded."It is not safe, Prophet. Only my family cannot be harmed by the substance in this tank. They have told me that it was created using something from our bodies. My brother Achmed and I are the only ones it cannot kill. All other men on earth will die if they come in contact with it, even though it is so small it cannot be seen.""Hello, genius," the man in black said. "Who do you think you're talking to? Hurry up and open it."Reluctantly, Mustafa did as the Prophet instructed. He slit the seal with a knife and lifted the lid. There was a hiss and a release of yellowish steam. Mustafa held his breath and watched the Prophet's face.Once it was perfected, the scientists had tested the supervirus on many guinea pigs. Mustafa had seen the terrible results and knew what to expect. He was delighted to see none of them appear on the Prophet's face. The man in black was completely unharmed.The next command was puzzling."Take that and sink it."Mustafa picked up the object he had carried with him from his cell. Holding it in both hands, he plunged it deep into the substance in the tank. It was a liquid, but not really wet. It was cold, but not freezing. Mustafa held the item beneath the yellow mist for several minutes, and only when the man in black told him that it was long enough did he remove it. It was damp when it came out of the tank, but the wetness evaporated seconds after exposure to air. There was no evidence that it had ever been inside the damp tank.Mustafa replaced the lid and left the lab. The Prophet guided him through empty corridors. There were many flights of stairs. Mustafa had not realized he was so far underground. At each door was a keypad and every code was known to the man in black. Eventually the last door swung open and for the first time in nearly a decade Mustafa was breathing free air. And he was alone.A voice on the breeze carried faintly to his ears."You have pleased me, Mustafa Mohammed. This thing you do for me today will end in a great, terrible act of destruction. Flee this place now, that you may bring glory unto us. And be sure to keep it dry. That is most important of all. Dry, Mustafa. It must never get wet."And the voice was gone as well.Mustafa jumped when he heard squeaking at his ankles. A pair of fat black rats raced from the stairwell and disappeared into the desert night. Mustafa's heart thudded.The offer of freedom after a decade of captivity was a temptation almost too great to resist. Mustafa was about to flee into the desert when a guilty thought struck him. Propping the door open with a cinder block, he raced back down into the complex. Mustafa's brother was sound asleep. Mustafa had to drag sleepy Achmed from his bed."He has freed us," Mustafa whispered."What are you going on about?" Achmed asked groggily."Look, brother."Shaking his head in anger, Achmed glanced down the corridor. His mouth dropped open when he saw that a door that was always sealed was hanging open wide. Shoving feet into boots and grabbing up a few clothes, he ran with his brother up into the free air.In the dark of the desert night, towers and walls rose behind them. The laboratory complex had been constructed deep beneath one of the great leader's palaces."Praise Allah but who has given us our freedom, brother?" Achmed asked. "One of the scientists?"When Achmed saw the stupid knowing grin on his brother's face, he understood the truth."He is not the Prophet, Mustafa," Achmed insisted. "He is something from our family's past. I know this now. I felt it when I first saw him and I later remembered a story passed down from grandfather Abdullah's time."But Mustafa would not hear it. "We are free because of him, and I now have a mission, praise his name."Since he could see there would be no persuading Mustafaotherwise, and knowing that he did not want to get anywhere near the creature that was absolutely not the Prophet, Achmed parted ways with his brother.With unaccustomed acumen, Mustafa assumed he was no longer safe in Iraq, so he stole across the border into Iran where the next few years were a blur.There was only one thing he carried with him from his past. Mustafa had with him the item soaked in supervirus solution when he travelled to Saudi Arabia, where he fell in with the al-Khobar terrorist organization. It was clutched to his chest in England, where he spent a year acclimating to the decadence of the hated West. He carried it with him on the plane to Canada and brought it with him when he sneaked on foot across the border into the United States. It was with him on the seat during flight training where he learned how to fly a plane into a building. And it was under his pillow when he hit the snooze bar on his alarm clock one too many times and failed to catch his flight at Logan International Airport in Boston on September 11, 2001.Mustafa Mohammed fled back to England, was extradited back to the U.S., dubbed the "twentieth hijacker" by the media, was tried for the attempted terrorist act of flying a plane full of innocents into the White House, and locked away in a tiny cell in a federal prison for the rest of his natural days.And there he rotted for five long years.It was not the life of a man who knew that he was destined for greatness. Why had the Prophet chosen him if his intention was to forsake him? Why had Allah given the gift of perfect health if not to use it to glorify His name? Why of all his relatives was he one of only two to be spared death? Surely there was a purpose to it all. Yet, Mustafa realized, his brother Achmed had been right about one thing. Mustafa was not very bright. If there was an answer to the riddle of his life, he could not see it.Every day for five miserable years he prayed for guidance. And in the early months of his sixth year of confinement inthe United States, he could take it no longer. Mustafa raised his hands to the cold, dank ceiling of his cell and cried out in a loud voice. "Why have you abandoned me, Prophet?"He jumped when a voice behind him answered."Don't get on my case. You have any idea when my last vacation was?"When he wheeled to the source of the words, Mustafa could scarcely contain his joy.Although the cell door was still locked tight and had not opened, a figure stood in the small cell with Mustafa Mohammed. Gone was the black business suit and black lab coat he had worn back in Iraq. In its place were flowing black robes as dark as a starless midnight. Slender fingers extended from billowing sleeves. The face that seemed to float in air above the nothingness of the robes was as benign as ever, with no hint of the skull-like features Mustafa's brother had described. Long thinning hair brushed a bundle of black cloth attached to the back of the tall man's robes. Mustafa realized that the extra cloth was a hood."Prophet, it truly is you!" Mustafa cried with joy."You want to keep your voice down already?" the figure said. "Do you still have it with you?"There was one thing that he had been allowed to take with him into federal prison. The one item that had made the long trek with him from the hell of the subterranean Iraqi lab through his travels in the West to his failure to exalt the name of Allah by flying a commercial jetliner into the home of the hated infidel president.Mustafa retrieved his ancient family Koran from the shelf above his metal bunk. This was the item he had submerged in the tank in the laboratory back home.Mustafa had obeyed the Prophet's order to keep the book dry. He had been around the scientists long enough to know what would happen if the book were ever to get wet."They didn't take it from you," the creature in black said, nodding with pleasure. "Excellent.""They examined it, but found nothing wrong," Mustafasaid. "They were not even allowed to touch it without wearing gloves. I don't think the cloth gloves would have helped them before, but now, Prophet, I am not sure if it is even dangerous any longer."At this, the man in black laughed. "No, Mustafa, the gloves wouldn't have done them any good. Not if this baby had gotten wet. And I assure you, it's as wonderfully poisonous as ever. I can feel death upon it. It is time for you to use the book, Mustafa, to bring glory upon us."Mustafa felt his chest swell with pride. "Very well, Prophet. When will you release me from the infidel prison?""Who do I look like, Alan Dershowitz? This isn't Iraq, you know. This place is crawling with guards. Get out on your own. Then take out a city for me." The man in the black robes tapped a long finger to his chin and considered. "The big one's bound to hit the West Coast any day now, so no sense wasting it there. Death doesn't double-dip. You should go east. New York or Washington. Boston is pretty uppity. There wouldn't be too many tears if Beantown gave up the ghost. Tell you what, why don't you surprise me?"The man who was not the Prophet did not fade away, he was simply gone. As if a switch had been flicked.Mustafa was alone once more.On the floor where the Prophet had stood was a puzzled gray mouse and a few cockroaches that had come out of hiding in the prison walls. They scattered from the light.Mustafa held in his hand an object capable of inflicting greater human suffering than an atomic bomb, an object he had hidden in plain sight of the Americans all this time, yet to use it as the Prophet wished he had to get out of prison.Mustafa taxed his brain but as usual it did not pull its weight. It was no use. Mustafa needed another brain to think for him. Luckily the soft Western justice system had a tried and true method of getting guilty men like Mustafa out of prison so that they could commit fresh acts of evil too horrible to describe. Mustafa decided to take a cue from something the Prophet himself had said, something that wouldnot even have been possible in the nation of his birth if not for the intervention of the hated United States. Mustafa went to the door and shoved his blubbery lips between the bars of his cage, as he had that night years before in his dog cage prison back in Iraq when he told his brother that he had been blessed with a visit from the Prophet."I want to speak with my lawyer!" shouted Mustafa Mohammed, 9/11's infamous twentieth hijacker.Copyright © 2008 by Warren Murphy