The next week, May and Andy were gone off to Washington DC to finalize the FDA approval of May’s various inventions. Then they’d be off to the warehouse they had rented as a factory for Olympus Inc.
“It’s in Worcester?” I asked when I heard about the factory’s location. “You mean you were in Massachusetts all summer and didn’t contact me? I was only an hour away!”
“Well,” May said, “we didn’t exactly have a way to contact you.”
“What about the cPhone?” I asked. “It should work outside…”
“It’s kind of illegal,” Andy pointed out. “I mean, the way they work outside the campus is by pretending to be a phone on the strongest network. You AMS guys may be crazy enough to casually commit theft of service, but I’m not.”
That had been on Saturday as I had walked them to the island’s airport. Nari had wanted to come, but Sunny hadn’t let her. I stayed there in the surprisingly light drizzle (well, light for NIU in mid-October) as the plane taxied down the runway. I then started to walk back to the campus.
However, for some reason, I turned to look at the forest. I had run through those woods twice a day for a semester, and I’d also had my first firefight there. Oddly enough, except for the monthly run, I hadn’t visited it since then, even though I had been thinking about doing it ever since Hell Semester had ended. I had this idea in my head that going back to the part where the most deadly part of the battle had taken place, a crater probably formed in WWII when the US took the island from the Japanese, I would instantly feel better.
Walking into the forest, I began to feel a sense of unease. On the path, I noticed that something was… off. Along the path where years of vehicles and Hell Semester students had worn, the trees had begun to blossom. Most of the other non-coniferous trees farther back in the forest had almost finished losing their leaves, but these seemed to think it was spring despite the colder weather.
I didn’t need to think about what this meant for too long. The Architect had been through here. I considered my options. The newly awakened sensible side of me pointed out that pursuing whatever this was would be a bad idea. The slightly less sensible side was inclined to believe that I wouldn’t have a prayer of sleeping until The Architect was dead. This less sensible side also pointed out that The Architect had come after me first, with no warning or provocation. My sensible side countered that the weapons I had on me (my SIG and my Berretta, plus a switchblade) would probably be of little use on someone (or something) that could make space and time his or her bitch.
I was busy considering whether to walk away like nothing was wrong, or going down there and ending The Architect when Mubashir appeared ahead of me from a side trail. I sighed inwardly. That’s twice I’d seen him involved in Architect-related weirdness and zero times I had seen signs of The Architect without seeing Moob. Odds were looking better and better that Bai was right and he was The Architect.
Upon seeing me, Mubashir froze. As he did, I noticed he was clutching what seemed to be a prayer rug. Finally, after a long pause, I said, as casually as possible, “Hey Moob, what’cha doing out here?”
“I… I was just finishing up some prayers,” he said after another pause. I noticed that he was slightly flustered. “There’s a bunker up that path that keeps the rain out. Really peaceful.” When I didn’t say anything to that, he added, “I also have to get away from Salim.”
“Won’t he notice that you’re gone?” I asked.
“Not on Saturdays,” Mubashir said. “He’s usually trying to get other Muslims to join.” He cocked his head. “By the way, what are you doing here?”
“I was trying to see if I could find the crater,” I said. Seeing Mubashir’s confused look, I said, “It’s where most of the Hell Semester battle happened. There’s more than a few ghosts there that I need to burry.”
Mubashir nodded. It was hard to see at that distance, especially in the rain and mist. “I know a few things about ghosts,” he said. “Would you like me to walk with you? Make sure you don’t step on a mine or unexploded shell?”
“Sure,” I said. The mines and shelling were mostly around the Hell Semester side of the island, but the forest separated that area from the main campus. The crater in question had most likely been from a battleship. The likelihood some other shells had landed in the area was pretty high. I didn’t want to risk stepping on a shell big enough to make that kind of crater that had been waiting for me since the early forties. “You can’t be too careful.”
We crossed the distance between us, then began our journey. After a few minutes, Mubashir remarked, “You know, I don’t really ever think of that last day of Hell Semester as a battle. More like a final where I just sat around doing nothing.”
“It definitely was a battle,” I said. “Especially around the crater.” After another pause I said, “I know it’s probably nothing compared to what you went through, but that kind of fucked me up. That and the rest of Hell Semester.”
“About that,” Moob said, “I’m sorry about what happened after Fight Night.” I nodded. He was referring to an incident where Salim had ambushed me. It ended up with most of Salim’s crew dead and me sharing an ambulance ride with a girl Eliza had really messed up. It wasn’t a fun time.
We walked along for a little while more. “You know,” Mubashir said, “for a time I alternated between not believing in Allah and cursing Him, saying I could do a better job. A few months after being kidnapped by Al-Qaeda, in fact.”
“What changed?” I asked.
Mubashir obviously wished I had asked something else, but he answered anyway. “In difficult situations some people find God, some people lose him. In even rarer situations God finds them.”
There was more silence. During that time, we kept heading deeper and deeper into the forest. We had left behind the strange blossoming trees and were in a segment that I wasn’t exactly familiar with. However, I could feel we were getting close. Finally Mubashir asked, “So, how many of them were there?”
“A captive we had claimed around a hundred and fifty,” I said, “and a captured cPhone with a ‘Find My Friends’ feature led me to believe he was correct.”
“That many?” Mubashir asked. “Against eight of you?”
“The vast majority were worse than useless,” I said. “They panicked way too easily, they couldn’t tell a safety from a magazine catch, and until the very end, their leadership ranged from nonexistent to worse than useless.”
“I’ve had experience with those kinds of leaders,” Mubashir said. “It’s almost funny when they meet on the field of battle and match ‘wits.’ Except so many are dying and each side had an obvious way to end it without that many people dying.” He sighed. “Of course, the war I’m fighting is completely unnecessary and one of the groups I’m fighting with is becoming less relevant every day. I believe the English language meme is dumpster fire?”
I shrugged. “Haven’t looked at the net much lately so I couldn’t…” I paused. We had just come into a clearing. A very familiar one.
“What is it?” Mubashir asked.
“This is where we had our second battle,” I said. I hurried out into the middle of it. “I came through the bushes…” I scanned around, then pointed to the spot, “…over there. Standing right here was an enemy patrol. We took them out…” I could almost see the last one. He had been playing dead as The Monk and I had advanced on him. Then his phone had rung and he had popped up. We had shot him. I remembered how he and his companions’ blood had soaked the snow. We had then looted the corpses after making sure all of them were dead. I somehow felt both ashamed and proud.
“Are you ok?” Mubashir asked.
“Moving on!” I said with forced cheer. Mubashir looked at me strangely, but he followed me down memory lane. “You know,” I continued in a non-sequitur, “It was really cold. And blizzarding. Visibility was complete shit and everyone’s teeth were chattering. Of course, you were back at camp, experiencing the same weather so…”
“I don’t remember any of it,” Mubashir said. “It was honestly just another day off for me once I set the tent up. Salim was ranting, and those of us who were still left were listening to him vent.”
“What does he talk about?” I ask.
“His family and how they got murdered by an American drone,” Mubashir said. “Just once, I want to point out my family was most likely killed or enslaved by Al Qaeda, but that would blow my cover.” He kicked a tree. “I work for UNIX!” He kicked it again. “I work for the CIA!” He kicked a final time. “I work for Al Qaeda! I work for three of the worst entities in the world, three entities who lie and abuse my brother and sister Arabs daily! Who abuse me daily! Why am I cowardly enough to work for them?”
“I don’t think you’re a coward,” I said. “Honestly, I just don’t think you have a choice.”
“Apart from suicide,” Mubashir said.
“If you’ve found God again,” I said, continuing on my journey, “and if he’s saying the same thing to you as he is to me, that’s definitely a sin.”
Mubashir began following me. “Maybe our gods aren’t so different after all,” he said with a bit of a bitter laugh. “Which would make sense, since they’re the same.”
Eventually, we saw it. The memories of the events there caused me to stagger a bit, and for a minute, I could smell the fire and smoke. I could hear the gunfire and screams of the dying. It was so real I almost thought I was back there. Next to me, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mubashir look at me in concern.
I took a few deep breaths, then said, “I’m ok.”
“To be fair,” Mubashir said, trying to sound casual, “You’re doing a lot better than I would if I went back to my village.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Anyway, if you look around, I think you can still see some signs of the battle. For instance, those shrubs along the sides of this path… I think you can still see how they got burned.”
After that, I led Mubashir up the path to the crater, keeping up a running commentary about everything that happened. How Doc, The Monk, John and I had to fight our way to the crater where Eric, MC Disaster, Ray-Gun and Cross had holed up. How the enemy had sent a recon team down what we had termed the funnel, and how The Monk and I had killed most of them. How the next attack was the rest of them, all coming down the funnel, and how we had massacred them with our guns and incendiary grenades, literally dismembering some and burning a few others alive. How we had decided (stupidly) to leave the crater and were ambushed by the few remaining enemies. How they had shot me, The Monk and Ray-Gun and could possibly have killed all of us if a relief force led by Eliza hadn’t shown up.
From the top of the crater, I stared at the now-swampy wasteland where I had been shot. “Hey Moob,” I asked, “Is it weird that I’m kind of proud at what I did here?”
“By ‘weird,’” Mubashir asked, “do you mean wrong?”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I mean, I feel guilty. A lot of them died in pretty horrible ways. Sometimes because I pulled a trigger or threw a grenade.”
“I don’t know,” Mubashir said. “There is only one person who can answer that, and he hasn’t talked to me.” He smiled with a mixture of hope and cynicism. “I can say I hope God can forgive you, because I’ve been doing similar things and worse for much longer.”
“Well, I’ll hope he forgives you as well,” I said. “Mostly because I like your logic.” We laughed. It was genuine laughter. When we were done, I looked down at the bottom of the crater. “Someday,” I said, “I’d like to come back here with some other veterans, or some people like you who weren’t here but who’d understand what this is like. Cook some hot dogs or burgers, pop something to drown our sorrows, and just talk.”
“It can’t be with me,” Mubashir said. “I have to go back, and if they see me with you…”
I nodded. “Of course. Go on ahead.” I looked out to where I had been hit in the leg with shrapnel from a 40mm rifle grenade. “I’ve still got some reminiscing to do.” With only a short goodbye, Mubashir left. I watched him leave, then began to wonder how many more craters and North Koreas I would have.