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Fifteen-year-old Bassam Amin breathed slowly and deeply through a plastic straw. He'd become oblivious to the burning, itching discomfort of being buried under hot sand for hours. His secret was meditation.
Bassam's meditation had nothing to do with the Koran, nor the teaching of the holy men. He concentrated, instead, on remembering the belly dancer he'd seen on Egyptian television two years ago. His mind painted her every contour, her every expression, her every mesmerizing motion. Every smile, every wink, every toss of her hair. Every jiggle of flesh and every wag of the hips. He rotated her image to view her at all angles, stripping away her costume and dressing her back up again.
He'd never met the woman. He'd never met any woman who wasn't married, betrothed to another, or of too high a station to concern herself with an impoverished Palestinian bastard. With the changes happening in his body and mind over the last couple years, the wonders he'd never tasted became all the more alluring.
Females were all he could think of sometimes.
Besides killing infidels and liberating his homeland.
Whump! A trainer's foot stomped on the sand over his chest.
Bassam exploded out of the ground, spitting out the straw and sand from his lips. He hyperventilated while sprinting at full speed, eyes not even open until he brushed the sand from them on the run. He risked tripping and injuring himself this way, but it would get him off to a quick start.
His eyes stung. The structures of the obstacle course appeared as translucent outlines against the blinding white light of the day. His skin itched terribly all over but he dared not slow down toscratch.
As he approached the rope, he planned out the trajectory of his jumpthe higher he caught it, the shorter the climb and the less time it would take. He measured his stride so he wouldn't need to slow down. He hit the log and sprang into the air. If he missed the rope at this speed and angle, he would hit the side of the pit hard enough to break something.
He didn't miss. He caught the rope high and his arms took over as his legs now hung limp. Here's where the hyperventilating paid offhis muscles had plenty of oxygen. If he used his legs on the way up, he'd be penalized thirty seconds.
Hand over hand, he pulled himself toward the thick beam from which the rope hung, back muscles popping painfully. At the top, he held on with one hand while his other felt around for the knife he knew should be lying on the beam. His fingers closed around the blade of the bayonet and he put the handle between his teeth so both hands were available to suspend his weight.
Now his arms and shoulders ached, but he knew the longer he waited the weaker they would grow. He hyperventilated again, then reached out for the first monkey bar.
The bars were fastened between two shipping ropes extending, at a shallow angle, diagonally out and down from the wooden beam. The structure bounced and swayed crazily. Cautious trainees gripped the bars with both their hands, then waited for the swinging to stop before moving to the next. Bassam swung straight from one bar to the next but couldn't help breaking rhythm due to the dangerous undulations of the hanging bridge. Now his wrists and forearms ached, too.
The last bar hung over a narrow plank atop a fence eight feet high. He waited until the swaying of the bridge positioned him directly over it, and let go. His feet hit the plank and his legs bent to absorb the shock. He struggled to gain his balance, gasping for breath.
He had to pause a momenthis lungs were burning and he felt light-headed. Trainees who'd made good time up to this point usually fell here, too exhausted to maintain their balance.
Bayonet still in his mouth, now dripping with his saliva, he held both quivering arms out at shoulder level and walked the plank.
The fence made a sharp left-hand turn ahead and Bassam slowed to a snail's pace before he got to it. He almost lost his balance making the turn, anyway. But he stayed upright, regained control and picked up speed.
At the end of the fence a tire swung back and forth from a rope tied to a horizontal pole with a sand-filled duffel bag on the other end. The pole balanced atop the notched end of a swiveling fulcrum. A thick, round rubber slab filled the center of the tire. Bassam took the bayonet from his mouth and wiped the handle on his pants, then gripped it and watched the swinging tire. He had to strike hard and accurately, or the knife wouldn't support his weight.
As the tire arced across his front, he swung downward with all his might. The blade sunk into the rubber slab only about an inch-and-a-half. It would have to be enough. He stepped off the plank, the one hand still clutching the bayonet, his other hand grabbing his wrist. This was Bassam's favorite part of the course. His momentum made the fulcrum pivot while his weight gradually overcame the weight of the duffel bag at the other end of the pole and he was eased forward and down to earth.
He wrenched the blade loose and fell upon a straw dummy, his legs wrapping around the torso. The bayonet slashed against the straw neck while his free hand squeezed what would be the lower third of the face. He half-severed off the head, but his weight and inertia were too much for the dummy. He and the dummy went down, its supporting post uprooted from the sand.
He panted and cursed, looking around to see if he was disqualified. His eyes locked with a judge's. "Go! Go!" yelled the judge.
Bassam thrust the bayonet into the chest and left it planted there, reached down into the hole where the neck had been and extracted two training grenades. Holding one in each hand, he rolled off the dummy and crawled toward the concertina wire before him.
He flattened against the sand, turned his knees out and pushed with his legs, plowing a furrow in the sand with his cheek and ribcage. He pressed himself down as hard as he could, and still the razor barbs of the concertina tore at his shirt. He had to lift his head up several times to adjust his direction, and each time he did, the concertina pricked his head and neck.
Finally he crawled into open space. Here he struggled to work the pins out of both grenades. He let the spoons fly and cooked them off for three seconds, then sprang to his feet facing right. A mock building wall stood twenty yards away. He slung the first grenade through the window, transferred the remaining grenade to his throwing hand and whirled to the left. On this side loomed an open-top oil tank some fifteen feet tall. He lobbed the second grenade and dropped back to the ground between the banks of the crawling trench. He heard the grenade bounce off the side of the tankhis angle hadn't been high enoughand the pop of the fuses blowing to his right and left.
"Go! Keep going!" shouted one of the trainers.
Bassam crawled forward under more concertina. The trench dropped deeper into the earth. His cheek plowed sand again, so he couldn't see ahead very well. But the coolness and the stench told him the "swamp" lay just ahead. Rumor had it the trainers relieved their own waste into this water. It certainly stunk as if they did.
Now Bassam's hands were wet. He was at the swamp. He took a deep breath and slithered into it. The wire hung so low it touched the surface of the waterthere was no possible way to avoid submerging oneself in the disgusting muck and still make it through the course.
The swamp was deep enough for Bassam to crawl a little more comfortably without getting snared by the wire. If comfort could, in any way, be associated with this liquid hell. At the bottom of the swamp, his hands closed on a heavy object of metal and wood. He scooped it up and kept going.
Khaled Ali found it a bit disturbing to see Jan Chin laughing. The portly Chinese advisor's normal expression was a scowl that made Ali suspect he was always on the brink of maniacal wrath and any little thing might push him over the edge. But watching a trainee's face prune up in disgust at the horrible smell of the swamp, then crawl through it, always delighted Chin.
Ali, too, enjoyed pushing the trainees beyond their normal tolerance. He'd seen and smelled death, mutilation and many things a weakling couldn't bear to think about, all without blinking. But to see Chin grinning made him squeamish.
The two men stood upon the wooden tower overlooking the obstacle course, from which every part of the campand miles of landscape beyondcould be observed. But neither the Nubian Desert to the west nor the Red Sea to the east commanded their interest just now.
The young trainee made it to where the concertina wire ended and rose out of the swamp, dripping with scum of unspeakable origins. He cocked the slimy Kalashnikov and opened his eyes. He fired a burst at the target to his left (a life-sized cardboard effigy of an Hasidic Jew), stitching a line of bullet holes center-mass, then swung to his right and emptied the magazine into the last target (a cardboard Uncle Sam with fangs and devil horns). He then fell face-down on the sand, sucking hard for air.
Ali clicked the stopwatch. Chin, scowling again, leaned over to look at the elapsed time.
"He failed to get the second grenade inside the oil tank," Chin said. "Penalize thirty seconds."
Ali snorted. They could give Amin three such penalties and he would still hold the record for this course. Ali descended the tower, walked over and kicked the exhausted trainee in the leg.
"Go clean that weapon and yourself," Ali said.
Bassam rose wearily and staggered toward the field showers.
Chin nodded at Ali. "He has the sort of motivation you want."
"Everyone here is motivated," Ali said.
"He didn't hesitate at any obstacle. He showed no fear. No concern for life or health."
Ali nodded. "I have found my volunteer."