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The neck of a bottle was pressed between his lips, and tepid water spilled out over his chin and his neck. Some of it found its way into his mouth and down his throat, but it stuck there and he coughed it up again.
The bottle was taken away. Someone sighed.
“Try again. And this time, drink it. I can’t waste water on you, my friend. Are we agreed?”
There was a pause. Waiting for an acknowledgement. He nodded.
This time most of the water went into his belly. It was not nearly enough to slake his choking thirst, but when he opened cracked lips to ask for more it did not come.
“Not now, my friend. We must be wise. There’s no telling how long we’ll be stuck here.”
Where is here? It took a minute or two to communicate the question, so dry and cracked was he, and so weak from blood loss. Whoever was caring for him, they were patient.
“I can’t tell you that, I’m afraid. Some desert. But I don’t know where. Africa, Asia, South America, North America: one of those. Not that it matters. What matters is getting more water, and food if we can. And staying alive.”
How long have we been here?
“No more than two days. I think they dropped us in stages. You must have been one of the last.”
And what are we doing here?
He was answered by a laugh. “Staying alive, my friend. As the Beegees taught us. Staying alive.”
When night came he was strong enough to rise, and there was no sunlight to hurt his eyes and blind him. At first he found walking difficult: every step sent throbbing waves of pain radiating from his shoulder and his side. But when he inspected the wounds he found them clean, and dressed with patches of white gauze.
He staggered to the mouth of the cave and looked out on darkness. It was large darkness, with none of the cramped claustrophobia of his cell. A canyon was there, he was told, an ancient riverbed perhaps, and their shelter somewhere up one of the walls that enclosed it. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the clean desert air. Already the heat was fading. Night in the desert was cold, he had heard. He hoped they had blankets.
He looked up, his eyes adjusting to their new-found sight. Orion winked at him. He tried to remember what he knew of astronomy. Did that mean they were in the northern hemisphere? Could he tell how close to the equator they were? But it was useless. He had never been taught those things, and he had never taught himself. He lived in a world of GPS and mobile phones and the internet. What need did he have of such archaic knowledge?
He turned. The fire at the back of the cave was a bright spot in his vision, and still it hurt to look directly at it. He closed his eyes almost all the way and squinted through the lashes. It was better, but far from satisfactory.
“Here.” His saviour beckoned from near the fire. He stumbled over and received a length of silk, folded double. “Tie it around your eyes,” his saviour told him. “It will help with the firelight.”
The silk dimmed and blurred the world, but he no longer had to squint.
“What about your eyes?” he asked. “Don’t they hurt you?”
“Whatever they did to you, they did not do to me.”
“They kept me in darkness. I don’t know how long I stayed there. I think I went mad. I don’t know anything apart from my name.”
“And what is your name?”
“Colin. Colin Ashwood.”
“No.” He had tried that afternoon, mentally wrestling with the void in his memory; but you cannot wrestle with nothing, and he had given up, exhausted. “What about you?”
“My name is Mohammed,” his saviour replied. “I am from Somalia. I was a soldier, fighting for the liberation of my people.” There was no mistaking the note of pride in his voice.
“Your English is excellent.”
“I was educated at an English school. My parents were very wealthy. My father owned oil interests, and was a shrewd businessman.”
“How did you get here?”
“Much the same as you, I imagine. I was taken, and imprisoned for a long time — I suspect it was months. They took away your sight; they took away my hearing. When I woke in my cell I was deaf — I could not even hear the sound of my own voice, or the blood beating around my body. Maybe it was a test; maybe it was torture.” Mohammed chuckled softly. “I have been tortured before, and endured much worse. I accepted the silence, and spent much of my time praying and recalling passages of the Q’uran. I reasoned that Allah was testing me somehow, and that to fight my test was to doubt Him. It was not easy — the physical confinement took its toll, and there were times when I despaired of ever leaving that cell — but my faith upheld me.
“My imprisonment ended when I awoke in mid-fall over this desert. My hearing had returned, and with it a measure of strength and determination. When my parachute opened I was prepared. I scanned my surroundings and pinpointed landmarks, such as this ravine and the hills around it, and when I landed I gathered everything they had given me and made my way towards this place.”
Colin glanced down at the tiny heap beside the fire. “Is that all you have?”
“Yes. Everything. And yours, as well.”
Colin reached down for the aluminium water canteen. He lifted the silk scarf and squinted at it in the flickering firelight. On the base of the bottle, etched into the metal, was a symbol: two circles, one within the other, bisected by a line.
He held it out. “What’s this?”
Mohammed leaned forward, a shadow amongst shadows, and peered at the symbol. “You do not remember this?” he asked.
“It is the mark of a powerful organisation. Very powerful.”
“Powerful enough to kidnap us and drop us out of a plane into the desert?”
Mohammed took the canteen and gently replaced it with the rest of his things. “Perhaps we should not be concerning ourselves with such questions,” he said. “Perhaps we should be concerning ourselves with the business of survival.”
“Aren’t you curious about why we’re here? Don’t you want to know why they’ve done this?”
“Yes, and yes. But now is not the time. Now is the time for eating, and drinking, and the finding of food and water. Without these we will die, and there will be no more use for questions. First we must live.”
Mohammed rose and stretched himself, and for the first time Colin saw how tall he was: tall and lithe and lean, like a whip. Still his face was shadowed, cast in darkness by the low firelight and the shifting silk. He bent and gathered up a roll of the parachute.
“I go to pray,” he said. “Will you join me?”
“I’m not a religious man.”
“No man is truly religious, Colin Ashwood. But we all worship something. I worship Allah, and I render Him my prayers as a sign of fealty. Tell me, to what do you pray in time of trouble?”
He could sense rather than see the other man’s smile.
“Maybe you pray to nothing, my friend; but I guarantee that you pray.”
He strode away towards the mouth of the cave, leaving Colin alone.
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