Prologue: Monday, October 2nd. 6:42 a.m.
He could barely feel a pulse. The time was near.
Wahbi Fadhli slid a finger down his arm, tracing a bulging purple vein, following it down to the bundle of small, puckering track marks. His fingertip massaged his wounds, moving over the hungry little mouths, and came away moist, his skin coated in a layer of clear pus.
A line of prayer escaped in the moment before he pressed the finger against his lips and tasted the infection--sweet and rich, like raw sugar.
A sneeze caught him off guard, snapping his head back, sending his wild hair whipping. Turning his attention to the long shard of mirror leaning against the wall, Fadhli saw more blood this time--a considerable amount more. Dozens of perfect red droplets peeked out from the wiry tangle of his graying beard. The sight reminded him of the map he had been shown in that hotel room in Beirut, clusters of red thumbtacks pressed into a map of Manhattan. There were other maps in that room: Boston, Dallas, Washington--
Wrinkling his nose, he glanced at Amin's feet. They jutted out of a frayed section of rolled carpet, like a man eaten by a snake. Fadhli knew what had killed him had been worse. A bad injection had cut his partner's mission short, ended his life, and melted his brain out through his tear ducts. A swirling amber distortion hovered in the air over the body. The corpse's body temperature continued to rise, cooking inside the carpet roll.
He said a prayer for the martyrs of the Struggle, Amin included. His partner hadn't lived long enough to punish the corrupters and infidels living on all sides of their shared apartment. He thought of Amin's voice, low and rumbling, and the excitement they shared when they spoke about their mission.
Dozens of plump horseflies buzzed in circles over Amin. Yesterday, Fadhli had pulled back the carpet's lip far enough to see his partner's face. Under a paper-thin veneer of pale skin new life squirmed and tunneled. From death came life, in all things Allah provides.
The cell phone rang. Fadhli pushed off the floor, brushed off his knees, and went to the windowsill. He fetched the phone off the windowsill and answered in Arabic. "My life is his."
"And mine also," the Handler answered. Fadhli didn't know his name--and doubted that Amin had, either--but he recognized the old man's toothless, whistling voice.
Fadhli slid a fingernail under a length of scotch tape and tugged a page of newspaper off the window. An unfiltered sunbeam burst in, a spotlight on his face. He squinted as his eyes adjusted. The city came into view--a grid of gray buildings and black roads, bridges and rooftop billboards. Eyes straining, he could barely make out the slender green figure in the river, one arm raised a torch, fire as her weapon of war, while the other carried a book of heretical lies--the demon-whore monolith of this new Sodom.
"This is the day we flush the devils out from under the thickets in our garden," the Handler said in a voice altered by transmission from a digital satellite phone. "Go to the meeting place we have arranged, then to your position. Go with his word in your heart."
The line went dead. Fadhli dropped the cell phone to the floor and stomped on it. He kicked the remains across the uneven floor. He was glad to be rid of it; the cell phone reminded him too much of the Americans and their thoughtless excess. He saw them everywhere talking into their handheld machines at bus stops and street vending carts, ignoring their world and their creator.
Snatching his coat off a rack with a single broken arm, he hurried out the door and into the hallway. He shut the door behind him and locked it. A young black man in a gray Mets Hoodie and baggy jeans crept down the hallway with a limp.
"Hey, man, what you got in there smells like somethin' died all right, you know other people be living up in here too, man."
Fadhli turned towards the stairs and ignored him. As he descended down, he tried not to listen as the man continued to mumble out his complaints.
"Ain't like just cuz we ain't paying no rent or nothin' that mean we have to live with all that."
Wrestling into his coat, Fadhli ran through the breezeway foyer, out past the condemned signs on the rotten front doors, and out onto the alley. He spun, kept his head hung low, and stumbled across the cracked and uneven pavement to the avenue. The streets were still quiet. A few homeless derelicts wandered the sidewalk. Most of the shops hadn't opened yet. He easily hailed down a cab.
Inside, he saw only a sliver of the driver's face in the rear view mirror, enough to tell the man was an Arab, probably a Syrian, but judging from his clothes not a brother, just another mindless American with a tan.
"Sixty-first and Sixth," Fadhli said.
"Right," the driver said and punched the coordinates into a gadget on the dashboard. These people had lost their direction so badly that even a man who drove for a living needed a machine to guide him. Fadhli shook his head.
The driver made no attempt at small talk and he was grateful. He missed the serious conversations he overheard as a child, his uncles and father discussing their faith, their politics, their families. In America, even the men spoke only gossip and exchanged vulgar jokes. They weren't even men anymore, if they ever had been. They were lesser creatures than men.
He paid the cabbie--no tip even though the extra money was of no further use--and swung out of the taxi into the first wave of businessmen filing out of the subways into Manhattan. The anthill was filling up, he knew, and in another hour it would be difficult to make out individual bodies in the migrating swarm. He walked to the corner and waited.
Khalil came bounding across the crosswalk wearing a long black overcoat and carrying a briefcase. He met Fadhli with arms outstretched, pulling him into the open coat. Lowering his lips to Fadhli's ear, he whispered, "Reach into my pocket, brother, and take your weapon."
Dozens of pockets lined the inside of Khalil's coat, some already empty. Fadhli fished a syringe out of one pocket and transferred it to one of his own. Breaking off their embrace, Khalil kissed his forehead. "Today you become a martyr, a holy warrior, a name to be spoken with eternal respect."
"Will it hurt?" he asked. He hadn't considered it before, not even when the previous injections had caused violent seizures, grueling cramps, and vomiting. Pain was a part of his sacrifice, his gift to the world. But now he found himself thinking about this final pain and found himself frightened at the prospect.
Khalil's head turned, checking to ensure they weren't being watched, and then said, "It will. Worse than anything you've ever felt. The scientists said the test subjects screamed until their vocal cords snapped. But it will be over quickly. After you inject the accelerant, recite Sarah 35:9. By the time you finish, there will be no more pain. You will be in paradise."
A wave of indistinguishable men in suits and ties converged on the corner and Khalil disappeared into their ranks. A deep chasm opened in Fadhli's gut and he closed his eyes as the businessmen brushed alongside him.
He thought back to the funeral, six shrouded bodies lowered into the earth, releasing a handful of soil into the holes. That day he said goodbye to his family and promised to punish those who had released the bomb that killed them.
Fadhli opened his eyes.
He walked. His destination was still several blocks away, a large bookstore. But then he stopped, a scene in his peripheral vision capturing his attention. Across the avenue, a group of Hassidic Jews stood outside a coffee shop, watching over children running in circles, chasing one another.
He changed his mind. He changed the plan.
Fadhli chose a new target. Without looking, he bolted out into the street. A box truck swerved to miss him. The driver yelled an obscenity out the window. Fadhli ignored him.
Halfway across the roadway, he withdrew the hypodermic needle from his pocket, jammed it into his neck, and injected himself with accelerate. He kept walking.
The sound of a distant explosion rattled the street. Fadhli turned, broken out of his trance, and watched an amber cloud bloom over several blocks of rooftops.
It has begun, he thought. Heat raced through his body, tracing the pathways of his veins and arteries. His flesh reddened.
The cars skidded to a halt. The businessmen turned, ties swinging, and watched with mouths gaping. The Jews pulled their children close and huddled with them.
Another explosion, distant this time, and the outline of another amber cloud spread across the horizon.
Fadhli felt his heart stop beating. Falling to his knees, pain streaming through his body, he screamed, "Allah is the one who sends the winds to stir up clouds, then we drive them towards barren lands, and revive such lands after they were dead. Thus is the resurrection--"
Searing heat burst through the walls of his blood vessels, liquefying the flesh in its path, tearing open his pores to escape his body--
He stopped screaming the moment his body exploded.
A cloud lifted from his smoldering remains.
And New York City died with him.