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The last mission
Short story

October 16, 2001
The Iranian

-- "Would you like a coffee or tea Sir?"

Startled, Remus turned his head away from the window where he had been gazing at the ink-black sky and towards the direction of the sweet sounding voice. A young blonde woman in a blue uniform stood beside him, pushing a tray filled with drinks and those awful salty airplane peanuts. She was smiling with her pretty pink lips and sparkling blue eyes. The sight was more than he could bear. He mumbled a vague "No" and turned back to the window, to plunge once again into his daydream. With his leg, he felt the carry-on bag that he had stashed away under his seat. He glanced at his watch, concentrating on a minuscule red button resting on the glassy surface. This was the hundredth time he had repeated this motion since the take-off, almost an hour ago. The faint rose-smelling scent of the flight attendant's perfume had lingered insidiously in the air. It was turning Remus' stomach.

Silently, he recited the prayer that he had been taught by his grandmother when he was a child to chase away the scary nightmares that threatened to suffocate him during his sleep. He had not felt scared for a long time since those days. He hadn't felt scared when he had been a soldier in the war that had devastated his country and killed his wife and child. In fact, he had been considered one of the bravest soldiers among his contingent, the one who always volunteered to run ahead and test the mine-filled lands rigged by the Enemy. The one who always leaped out of his safe haven to crawl towards one of his maimed comrades and drag the body back to safety, under a storm of bullets. The one who had led a savage surprise night attack against the unsuspecting army camp of the Enemy, on their own territory. No wonder then that he had caught the eye of the General.

When the war had ended, Remus had thought it would be a time for rejoicing and celebration of the glory of the valiant soldiers who had fought for Motherland. But the new civilian regime that came to power had wasted no time in becoming a bitter disappointment to the fiercely nationalist Army. And it was not many months before soldiers like Remus, who had been given a warm welcome home at first, began to get scorned openly on the streets. To his horror, the new civilian President signed a Treaty of Friendship with the same Enemy that had destroyed the lives of so many of his brothers in arms. "Our agenda is an agenda of peace," the President had declared smilingly for the press and photographers who had gathered on the presidential lawn to record the historic moment where he would be shaking hands with the leader of his former Enemy. Despite the changing political climate, while many of the surviving soldiers started to accept their new social situation and tried to adapt to the new way of life, Remus kept clinging to his worn out blood-stained military uniform when he walked the streets. He ignored the dirty looks, the snide comments. One day he was spat at by an old peasant woman in the market who accused him and his like of wanting to drag the country back into a bloodbath. When the General contacted Remus through a web of acquaintances and former comrades, he did not hesitate to answer the call and relocate to the mountains, where the ex-military man was now engaged in a covert war against the national government and its foreign allies.

Now he was on a plane bound for the Enemy territory to carry out the ultimate mission of his soldier life. The last mission. He was to detonate the bomb he had smuggled easily into his carry on bag and pushed under his seat, once the plane got ready to make its descent onto the capital's airport. The General had explained how it was imperative that Remus wait until the plane appeared into the skyline of the capital so that the explosion would be witnessed by the Enemy population and send a message to the world at large. The General had told Remus he had chosen him especially for his courage and bravery and he had every confidence in him to accomplish his national duty to the end. So why was Remus now feeling so scared? He had started feeling nervous exactly as the plane took off. He realized that it may be because the reality of his deed had not become tangible until the second when the tires of the plane had left the ground at the point of departure. Why this feeling all of a sudden? He had no reason to think he wouldn't succeed as he had taken every precaution to get by the security forces at the airport. Did he secretly in his heart hope that he WOULD get caught at the last minute and his plans foiled? Was he a coward? He had never even thought about losing his life before, in the battlefield.

Remus paused... The battlefield... Where was it? Was the inside of this plane the battlefield? He forced himself to look around the plane. An old man was rocking what seemed to be his 2-year-old granddaughter to sleep in the aisle across from him. A bit further front, a young couple, maybe on their honeymoon, whispered sweet nothings in each other's ears and slipped a quick kiss when they thought no one was looking. Behind him was a middle-aged woman wearing the hejab, in a deep slumber, her head from time to time resting on the shoulder of her husband, who was reading an Arabic newspaper. By the airplane bathrooms, a queue had formed, in which passengers of every race, nationality, and creed, stood there chatting to make the time pass more rapidly. From time to time, the pretty flight attendant with the rose-smelling perfume walked up and down the aisle, offering alternatively a warm blanket for the sleeping muslim woman, a pillow for the grandfather holding the little girl, and a new headset to a teen-ager who wanted to watch the movie on screen. And Remus suddenly understood why he shuddered when he looked at the people around him, why he felt nauseous and his brow was perspiring profusely. For the first time in his life, he had doubts. How could he not? These were not the faces of the Enemy. What was he doing there on the plane, about to take the lives of innocent people?

"Innocent?!" the General had scoffed back in the mountains of his native land, "Look at what happened to our country... To our brothers in arms... To your own wife and child. Were they not innocent? God is the only one who can judge the innocence of men, Remus, and you can rest assured that every soul who is innocent, who has fought the Good Cause, will enjoy Eternal Peace at his side, once they have been able to escape from their earthly prison. Remus, God will judge you and reward you for who you are. Do not let yourself waver when confronted by the deceptive face of the Enemy. Remember, Satan will mask Himself with the most attractive of disguises in order to corrupt the innocents..."

Remembering the charismatic voice of the General, Remus found his own resolve strengthening. Even so, it would be better to avoid looking around him for the rest of the trip. He stared resolutely at the window, out onto the black sea of the sky. He lost himself again in the dream land of his memories and thought back to his childhood, being raised by his grandmother. In contrast to the present, he had been a sickly and weak child, devoured by nightmares of monsters and damp darkness. It had begun when, as an orphan toddler, he had been the prey of the older boys in the village. One day when he was three years old and playing by himself in the courtyard of her grandmother's farm while she was away at the river to wash clothes, the older boys had jumped over the fence and grabbed his small, helpless body. Laughing and chanting while Remus was screaming and struggling to get out of their hurtful claws, they had carried him to the deserted well located a couple of miles from the village, in the wilderness. It had fallen into disuse when a new well had been constructed in the heart of the village, and now lay isolated, dark and damp. Remus pleaded in his infant language for the boys to let him go but they were merciless. They tied him with ropes and dumped him in the bucket of rotting wood, then proceeded to lower him into darkness. Then they untied the rope, threw it down and ran away, leaving Remus to fend for himself against the rats, spiders and terrorizing demons of his imagination. All alone in the dark.

On her return to the house, his grandmother had been frantic when she realized his absence but no one at the village had the time or willingness to help her. For three days, she had run in the region screaming for Remus, name until an old carpenter had taken pity on her and decided to help her. After rounding up a few of the village boys, the carpenter had finally gotten a confession out of one of them and he and the old woman had lost no time in running to the well, thinking the worse. When they arrived, they could distinguish a shadow at the bottom but as much as the grandmother cried out Remus, name, he would not respond. They thought he was dead. The old carpenter secured some ropes and lowered himself into the well to bring up what he thought was a corpse. But to his amazement, Remus was still alive. At least he could tell that he was alive because his body was warm. No sound, no motion emanated from the little child. And when he was brought back into the light, his eyes had a thousand yards stare. His grandmother thought he had had a stroke and would remain dumb. It was only two years later that she was startled with the sound of "Nana" coming from Remus, bedroom. The spell had been broken and he talked again but never again would he have a peaceful sleep during the night.

In the plane, Remus glanced at his watch: Only a few more minutes and he would press the red button on the glassy surface. The bomb in his bag would go off and a magnificent explosion, a testament to God's power, would set off over the astonished eyes of the Enemy people, over the sky of their own Capital. Already, Remus could see a few lights below demonstrating the existence of the large City. The Captain's voice was heard over the speaker.

-- "Ladies and Gentlemen, we now begin our descent to the Capital Airport. Please remain in your seats and put on your seatbelt until the safety signs have been turned off."

This was the signal Remus had been waiting for. Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, he pressed as hard as he could on the red button of his fake watch and waited for the explosion, for death, for paradise. A sudden jolt propelled him forward but his seat belt was able to restrain him and prevent him from bumping his head against the chair in front of him. So this was the impact of death? It felt like nothing more than those sudden jerks an airplane occasionally experiences during particularly bad weather. What was strange though was that he didn't hear any explosion nor could he feel any heat from the flames that likely would be consuming the aircraft... Behind him, he heard the Muslim woman crying out, as the impact had awakened her from her nap. But apart from that, it seemed to him that things were going back to normal... The plane was still running its course.

The Captain's voice was heard again over the speakers.

-- "Ladies and Gentlemen, we apologize for this sudden gust of wind. The weather has cleared. We will soon be landing."

What the hell was he talking about? Remus could not believe his ears! He was supposed to be blown into bits by now. He opened his eyes slowly, until they were wide open. His mouth dropped in disbelief. Nothing had changed. The grandfather was still rocking his granddaughter to sleep. The honeymooners were still giving each other quick pecks like lovebirds. The pretty rose-smelling flight attendant was standing at her station, seemingly flirting with a male attendant. Behind him, he could hear the slight snores of the Muslim woman, who had gone back to her nap, and the crumpling of paper as her husband was turning the pages of his newspaper. Remus looked down at his watch and with his legs touched his carry on bag. They were both still intact. Frantically, as he felt the plane slowly losing altitude and he heard the tires being deployed in preparation of landing, Remus pressed the red button, once, then twice, then a multitude of times. The situation was almost comical by now. He looked around and no one was paying any attention to him. Anger made him bold and he actually brought his bag up from its hiding place and opened the zipper. The bomb was there and the timer blinked on "0:01". Remus could not believe his eyes. The bomb had for some unexplainable reason been disabled one second before it was due to go off. What a freak accident, Remus thought to himself, now all memories of doubts and fears forgotten, replaced by intense frustration at a missed mission. The General, who had spies watching CNN round the clock, would be so disappointed.

Remus resigned himself to his failure and decided to calm down and concentrate the rest of his efforts at passing through the airport security and immigration barriers surreptitiously. The plane landed without any problems and very soon was parked. The passengers all got up to take their bags, say goodbye to the airline staff, and walk to their first stop, customs and immigration. Nothing was out of the ordinary, out of routine, except for the chill Remus felt and which he attributed to his nerves. The airport, in which he had never been before, was painted in antiseptic beige colors, with gloomy white lights lending to it the aspect of a hospital. It was spotless, the floors shiny and devoid of any garbage, although curiously, Remus could not detect any garbage bins or washrooms. It was also deserted, but this was an overnight flight and Remus didn't expect the airport of even a big cosmopolitan Capital city to be busy at this time.

The immigration checkpoint had a number of desks, but only one official was working, probably due to the late hour. Carrying his fake passport, Remus waited his turn in line, not feeling any more nervousness than usual when he was involved in covert operations. The immigration official seemed to very routinely glance at the passports being handed to him by the passengers and wave them in, towards a set of automatic doors beyond which Remus could not see. The grandfather and his little girl were the first to go through, the official giving a little pat on her head as he sent them along. The Muslim woman, who had finally awakened from her nap, was next, followed by her husband. When his turn finally came, Remus handed his documents to the immigration official. This was a young man with thinning reddish hair and an impeccable uniform, complete with shiny buttons and white gloves. The official spent no longer a time on Remus' passport than he had for the other passengers. "Sir," said the official, "if you could please stand aside and wait until I process the rest of the passengers. I have a few questions for you."

-- "What seems to be the problem officer?"

-- "Oh, nothing... pure formality," replied the official, with a smile, "You need a special visa as you are a first time visitor to our country, and as you see, I am the only one working here and cannot absent myself. You will need to accompany me to my bureau to fill out some forms and then you will be on your way. I ask you to please bear with this inconvenience, Sir, if you don't mind?"

Remus just nodded. The polite tone of the offical did nothing to reassure him. Despite his courteous manner, there was something about him that made Remus feel ill at ease. Behind a pair of metal-rimmed glasses, he thought he had detected a gleam of suspicion in the official's eyes. And the smile he had flashed at Remus also seemed out of place, with yellow, slimy looking teeth that contrasted sharply with his immaculate uniform. And didn't his incisor teeth look unusually sharp, even bestial looking Remus began to feel paranoid. Maybe he had been double-crossed? Maybe someone had rigged his bomb so that it would not detonate, then set a trap for him in Enemy land? But for now he would play dumb.

So he just stood there, a little aside, watching the procession of passengers before him being waved through the automatic doors. Even though the bomb had not worked and his mission had been an utter failure, Remus still found it difficult to look up at the faces of these people before him, at the young honeymooners walking hand in hand, the teen-ager who had complained of his head set, and finally the airline staff and crew. He knew the pretty flight attendant was beside him when he caught scent of her rose-smelling perfume, now growing in intensity. He felt her eyes on him and he looked up but it was just a phantom feeling. The rose-smelling attendant was long gone by the time he had dared to look up at her, and only her sickly sweet fragrance had lingered as testimony of her existence. The immigration official now stepped away from his desk and turned to Remus, just as polite and professional as before.

-- "This way now, sir. My apologies again for this inconvenience."

Remus mumbled something like "Not at all" and followed the official, not towards the automatic doors but through another corridor at the right hand side. He had been startled by the voice, which seemed to him too deep for such a youthful man. But was he really that young? He had already noticed the thinning red hair. And now, looking at him from the back, the official looked more burly than before, even drooping somewhat as he walked. There was something in the manner he walked, with his right leg slightly limping behind, and his arms stuck at his sides that reminded Remus of something, of someone. Again, doubts assailed him as to whether this was a trick, whether he knew this person masquerading as an official. Was he being led into a trap? Remus tried to catch up with the official to take a better look at his face, but the official had a quick step and Remus was having trouble following him. He seemed unable to take the long strides that his muscled legs usually allowed him to accomplish. He felt disoriented, as if his surroundings were becoming distorted. The ceiling felt too low, the walls seemed to come closer together the further he walked. Finally, he opened his mouth to ask the offical to slow down but to his surprise he blurted out his request in his native tongue. Afraid that the immigration official had discovered his identity, Remus turned back to run away but was confronted by darkness. He turned around again and now realized he was immersed in total obscurity. The offical had disappeared for good. What was this game?

Remus started to feel very scared, very claustrophobic. He decided to speak out again, this time concentrating on the words of the Enemy language. But as much as he racked his brain, he could not find the words. His brain seemed to lose its functions, and his once sharp mind was beginning to give way to panick, overwhelmed at the darkness surrounding him. Remus tried to feel his way around him with his hand and it was not long before he touched a surface. At the texture of the wall he gave a sudden cry and fell down. It felt damp and stone-like, and he could almost swear something slimy had scurried across his fingers. Another puzzlement was his voice. When he cried out, it had sounded unnatural and high-pitched, like a child's. What had happened to him? He thought he had been drugged, was having a nightmare, but even these notions were becoming more faint as time went on. He hesitantly held out his hands again and found the damp stony texture of the wall. He felt tears come to his eyes and rolling down his cheeks, he who had not cried since he was... since he was... three years old... stuck in the well. He tried to get up but found that his legs were feeble. He put his hands on his knees to gain support and felt his skin. Where were his clothes? He suddenly realized he was naked. But he couldn't remember taking off his clothes. Was he going crazy? His limbs began to tremble uncontrollably. Around him, he could hear little squeaky noises like those of rats, and a faint sound of water drops, as if he was in a deep cave or grotto. But it wasn't until he heard the voice of his grandmother calling "Remus, Remus" from up above that he had a flash of comprehension.

The bomb had gone off.

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