Arnold Raphel looks towards his Cessna, his mind races through a list of excuses, but by the time he reaches something starting with Nancy, General Zia's arm is around his waist and he is marching him up the ladder into Pak One.
General Akhtar buries his face in his hands and looks down through his fingers at the fluffy white carpet on the floor of the VIP pod. He notices a thin streak of blood crawling towards him. He traces it to its source and sees that General Zia's shiny oxfords are oozing blackish red blood. He panics and looks at his own shoes. They are spotless. Suddenly a ray of hope, faint but a ray of hope nonetheless, penetrates the doom engulfing his soul. Maybe the Shigri boy has inflicted an inner wound and Zia is bleeding to death. Maybe the plane will get to Islamabad safely. Maybe he'll have to rewrite his speech, just changing the lines about an unfortunate accident an unfortunate accident to to President's sudden demise President's sudden demise. Would he be ready to take over the country if the plane makes it to Islamabad? General Akhtar suddenly remembers a long-forgotten prayer from his childhood and starts to mutter it. Then halfway through his prayer, lie changes his mind and lunges towards the VIP pod's door. "Major Kiyani, tell the crew to keep the air condi-toning off, the President is not feeling too well."
"By jingo, I am dandy," General Zia protests, then looks down at the puddle of blood around his shoes on the carpet, but like a junkie in denial, he refuses to make a connection between the grinding pain in his abdomen, the fluid trickling down his pants and the streak of blackish-red blood on the carpet. He decides he needs to change the subject. He wants to take the conversation to a higher level so that nobody would notice the blood on the floor. He knows that the only person he can rely on is Arnold Raphel.
The C130's doors secured, the pilot move his throttles forward and the four propellers start picking up speed. General Zia looks towards Arnold Raphel and says to him in a pleading voice, "We'll buy those tanks. What a sensitive machine have you built. But first, tell me how will history remember me." The voices in the VIP pod are being drowned out by the din of the aeroplane. Arnold Raphel thinks General Zia is asking him about the target sensors on the Abram One tank. Arnold Raphel, Carmelite orphans' hymns still ringing in his head, loses his cool for a moment and gives the first and the last undiplomatic statement of his life. "No, Mr President, they are as useless as tits on a boar."
General Zia can't believe what Arnold Raphel just said: the world would remember him as a bit of a bore.
In a moment of panic General Zia feels that he must rectify this historical misconception. There is no way he was going to go down in the textbooks as the President who ruled this country of one hundred and thirty million people for eleven years, laid the foundations of the first modern Islamic state, brought about the end of communism but was a bit of a bore. He must tell them a joke, he decides. Hundreds of hilarious one-liners that he has tested in his cabinet meetings run through his mind and blur into one endless cosmic joke. He rehearses one in his head. He knows that jokes are all about timing. "What did the seventy houris say when they were told that they would spend the eternity with General Zia in paradise?" He can't remember the houris' exact words. There was something about being condemned to hell for eternity but it's dangerous to tell a joke if you can't get your punchline right. Then a flash of genius. He must tell a family joke. He wants to be remembered as a witty man. But he also wants to be remembered as a family man.
"Because the First Lady thinks he is too busy screwing the nation," he says jumping in his seat. It is only when nobody around him laughs that he realises he has blurted out the punchline and now can't remember the rest of the joke. He yearns for a moment of lucidity, a flash of clarity that would cut through the muddle that is his mind. He looks around at the wretched faces, and realises that he will not remember this joke. Ever.
He turns to General Akhtar in an attempt to preserve his legacy and keep the conversation going. "How do you think, Brother Akhtar, history will remember me?" General Akhtar is pale as death. His thin lips are muttering all the prayers he can remember, his heart has long stopped beating and his underpants are soaked in cold sweat. Most people faced with certain death can probably say a thing or two they have always wanted to say, but not General Akhtar. A lifetime of military discipline and his natural instinct for sucking up to his superiors overcome the fear of death and with shivering hands and quivering lips General Akhtar tells the last lie of his life. "As a good Muslim and a great leader," he says, then takes out a crisp white handkerchief from his pocket and covers his nose.
As I watch them gather on the red carpet near the ladder up to the C130, I begin to wonder if I should have trusted Uncle Starchy's folksy pharmacology. General Zia is still standing on his feet with his one arm around General Akhtar's waist. They look like lovers who don't want to let go of each other. Maybe I should have thrust the blade in the back of his neck when I had him at the tip of my sword. Too late now. I am already strapped in a seat in General Beg's plane. He offered me a lift after I was offloaded from Pak One. Our Cessna-his Cessna-waits on the tarmac for Pak One to take off. Protocol demands that Pak One should leave the runway first.
"Good to see you, young man." He waves his peaked cap at me. He opens a fat book with a fat man on its cover and starts flicking through the pages, lacocca: An Autobiography lacocca: An Autobiography reads the title. "Lots of work to do." He nods towards the pilot. reads the title. "Lots of work to do." He nods towards the pilot.
What's with books and soldiers? I wonder. The whole bloody army is turning into pansy intellectuals.
I look out of the window as the American Ambassador walks up to General Zia; double handshakes, hugs as if the General is not meeting the ambassador after two hours but has found his long-lost sibling. General Zia's grin widens, his teeth flash and his other arm wraps itself around the ambassador's waist. Bannon is in his suit, standing behind them, puffing nervously on a cigarette. There is an air of important men sharing a joke, spreading goodwill. It's only when they start climbing the stairs that I realise that General Zia is dragging his feet. He is almost hanging onto the shoulders of the two men flanking him. "The elephant will dance, the elephant will drag his feet, the elephant will drop dead." Uncle Starchy had given me a step-by-step guide to the effects of his nectar.
If I hadn't been sitting on that plane I would have flung my peaked cap in the air and shouted three cheers for Uncle Starchy.
General Beg notices the grin on my face and wants to take the credit. "You have come a long way, my boy. From that horrible Fortress to my plane; imagine the journey. Managing an army is not very different from managing a corporation." He caresses fat lacocca's face. "Treat your people well, kill the competition and motivate, motivate, motivate." He pauses for a moment, savouring his own eloquence. "My plane will take us to Islamabad." He turns towards the pilot. "My plane could drop you at the Academy but I think it's better that you take a jeep from there. I have to attend to some important business in Islamabad. I need to be in Islamabad." He taps the pilot's shoulder. "When will my plane reach Islamabad?"
If Uncle Starchy's nectar works as he promised, by tonight this man will become the chief of what Reader's Digest Reader's Digest has described as the largest and the most professional Muslim army in the entire world, and with some creative interpretation of the constitution, may even be the President of the country. has described as the largest and the most professional Muslim army in the entire world, and with some creative interpretation of the constitution, may even be the President of the country.
Pity the nation.
Pak One begins to taxi and General Zia puts both his thumbs in his safety belt and surveys his companions. His pain has subsided for the moment. He is satisfied by what he sees. He has got them all here. All his top generals are here except the one with the sunglasses who got away. His heart skips a beat when he remembers the look in General Beg's eyes. Shifty bastard, must be taught a lesson. Maybe I should make him an ambassador to Moscow and see how he wears his sunglasses there. He takes another look around and reassures himself that everyone who matters is here, even Brother Akhtar who seems to be sweating yellow sweat. And most important of all, Arnold Raphel and the CIA type who hangs around with the ambassador. Who in their right mind would think of killing the US Ambassador? Good, he thinks. All my friends are here. I have got them all. There is strength in numbers. If someone wants to kill me, he must be here too. We will all go down together. But why would anyone want to kill me? All I am doing is having a little mango party on the plane. Is that a sin? No. It's not a sin. Did Allah ever forbid us from sucking national security? No. But let's say a prayer anyway. He starts to recite Jonah's prayer but does not recognise the words that come out: "My dear countrymen, you are cursed, you have worms... dear countrymen, you are cursed, you have worms..." He has practised the prayer every night. A prayer and you are absolved. One moment you are in a whale's belly, in the depth of darkness, and the next moment you are thrown into the world, alive. Like being born again. He tries again; he opens his mouth and a guttural noise comes out. He looks around in panic and wonders if they can tell that he has forgotten all his prayers. He wants to shout and correct them because he has not forgotten any prayers, he remembers them all; it's just this terrible pain in his guts that is wiping out his memory. He thinks maybe he should pray for the others. Allah likes it when you pray for the others. In fact, it is better than praying for yourself. He surveys the faces in the VIP pod and lifts his hands to pray for them.
"Motherfuckers," he shouts.
They all look at him as if he is an irritating child and the only way to deal with him is to ignore him.
Pak One lines up in the middle of the runway and the propellers begin to pick up speed. The pilots, already beginning to sweat and fanning themselves with their folded maps, go through the final checks. The air traffic controller respectfully gives clearance for take off. Outside the VIP pod, in the back of the plane, Major Kiyani opens another button on his trousers and starts to breathe easy. It's all going to be OK, he tells himself. General Akhtar always has a plan B and plan C. He has carried out his orders. The air conditioning will not be turned on. "General Akhtar's orders," he has told the pilots. He is already feeling better. General Akhtar knows how this world works. General Akhtar also knows at what temperature the world works best. Warrant Officer Fayyaz sits down with the cadet absorbed in reading a book and rubs his thigh with his own; the cadet doesn't even notice.
Inside the VIP pod General Akhtar shifts in his seat and tells himself that all his life he has waited for this moment and even now, if he can find a good enough excuse to get off the plane, he can fulfil his destiny. The man who has spent a decade creating epic lies and having a nation of one hundred and thirty million people believe them, the man who has waged epic psychological battles against countries much bigger, the man who credits himself for bringing the Kremlin down on its knees, is stuck for an idea. He knows the air conditioning is off but does anyone really know how an air freshener works?
He thinks hard, raises his hand in the air and says, "I need to go to the loo." And Bannon, of all people, a lowly lieutenant, puts his hand on his thigh and says, "General, maybe you should wait for this bird to take off."
Ambassador Raphel thinks that he'll put in a request for transfer to a South American country and start a family.
One and a half miles away, in a sleepy mango orchard, perched behind the dust-covered dark green leaves, the crow flutters its wings and starts flying towards the roaring noise generated by the four fifteen-hundred horsepower engines of Pak One which is leaving the runway, never to touch down again.
Our Cessna starts to taxi towards the runway as soon as the presidential plane gets airborne. The climb is steep for an aircraft of this size. Pak One seems to struggle against gravity but its four engines roar and it lifts off, like a whale going up for air. It climbs sluggishly but clears the runway and turns right, still climbing.
Our own take-off is noisy but smooth. The Cessna leaves the runway lightly and takes to the air as if it were its natural habitat. General Beg is absorbed in reading his book with his Ray-Bans perched on the tip of his nose. The pilot notices that I am plugging my ears with my fingers and passes me a set of headphones and forgets to unplug them. I can listen in on his conversation with the tower as well as the tower's calls to Pak One.
"Pak One setting course for Islamabad."
"Roger," the air traffic controller says.
"Clearing runway. Turning right."
"Allah hafiz. Happy landings."
So absorbed am I in their inane exchange that I get a real jolt when our Cessna drops suddenly. It recovers quickly and starts climbing again. General Beg's hands are in the air. "A bloody crow. It came at my plane. Did you see it? Can you imagine there are crows flying around when we have cleared the whole area of all possible hazards. Crows in the Code Red Zone. Whoever heard of that? It's thanks to my pilot here that we are still alive." The pilot gives us a thumbs-up sign without looking back.
"Bird shooters," says General Beg as if the apple has just fallen on his head. "This is what this place needs: bird shooters." He starts scribbling in a file and misses one of the rarest manoeuvres in the history of aviation.
Pak One's nose dips, it goes into a steep dive, then the nose rises up and the plane starts to climb again. Like an airborne roller coaster, Pak One is treading an invisible wave in the hot August air. Up and down and then up again. The phenomenon is called phugoid.
Flying sluggishly, the crow surfs the hot air currents. Having eaten his own weight in mangoes, the crow can barely move his wings. His beak droops, his eyes half close, his wings flap in slow motion. The crow is wondering why he has left his sanctuary in the mango orchard. He thinks of turning back and spending the rest of the day in the orchard. He tucks his right wing under his body and goes into a lazy circle to turn back. Suddenly the crow finds himself somersaulting through the air, hurtling towards a giant metal whale that is sucking in all the air in the world. The crow has a very lucky escape when he dips below the propeller that is slicing air at a speed of fifteen hundred revolutions per minute. But that will prove to be his last stroke of luck. The crow hurtles through the engine, spins with the intake cycle and is sucked into a side duct; his tiny shriek is drowned out by the roar of the engine.
A pilot on a routine C13O flight would not even give a second glance to a crow in its path and carry on flying. A pilot flying Pak One would try to steer clear of it. When you are flying the President (and the US ambassador) you try to stay away from any hazards even when the risk ratio might be that of an ant and an elephant squaring up to each other. Sweating profusely, the pilot curses the inherent stupidity of the army generals and puts the aircraft into a shallow dive. He knows he has not avoided the bird hit, when the pressure needle monitoring his port engine suddenly dips and the air conditioning is switched on automatically. A refreshing puff of cold air send shivers through his sweat-soaked spine. A whiff of lavender makes him forget his orders to keep the air conditioning off.
General Zia feels the plane going into a dive, unhooks his safety belt and stands up. He is suddenly clear in his head that the time has come to show the buggers who is in charge around here. Eleven years, he thinks. Can you rule Allah's people for eleven years if Allah is not on your side?
General Zia stands firm, hands on his hips, like a commander on a turbulent sea. His audience slide in their seats and find themselves pinned against each other like people in a nasty turn on a roller coaster.
General Zia flings his right arm backwards and then brings it up slowly, like a baseball pitcher explaining his action to a bunch of children. He raises a fist and out of this fist comes his index finger. "This plane, by the will of Allah, will go up." He brings his index finger up as if pulling the nose of the plane up with his fingertip. They all watch, first in relief and then in horror, as the plane actually starts to go up again. They slide backwards. Arnold Raphel's head is on General Akhtar's shoulder for a moment. He excuses himself and tightens his safety belt.
General Zia sits down, slaps his thighs with both his hands and looks around, expecting applause.
General Akhtar changes his mind and thinks maybe all his life without knowing it he has been serving a saint, a miracle maker. He looks at General Zia with reverence and thinks maybe he should confess to what he has done and General Zia will be able to undo it. Turn the VX gas in the air-freshener tube back into lavender vapours. Then he stops himself and thinks if General Zia really was a saint, he would know that the plane's pilots are dead by now. VX gas takes two minutes to paralyse, another minute to kill. If you are flying Pak One you can't really do much in that one minute. If General Zia is really a saint, maybe he can bring the pilots back from the dead.
The air-conditioning ducts hiss into life.
General Akhtar was hoping death to announce itself with a whiff of lavender but what he smells is a dead bird's smell.
He is still thinking about how to articulate this problem when the plane's nose dips and it goes down into another dive.
The back door of the VIP pod opens. Loadmaster Fayyaz asks, "Shall I serve the mangoes, sir?"
"What a vulgar word? What the hell is phugoid?" General Beg is suddenly very curious.
"It's just what an aeroplane does when its controls are neutral. The plane will start going down. But when it goes down beyond a certain angle, its internal axis will correct itself and the plane will start going up again. Then it will go down again. But before that it will go up. Until somebody takes the controls again."
"How do you know all this?"
"I studied it in my Aerodynamics class."
"Why are the controls neutral? Why is nobody flying this bloody plane?" he asks me.
"Pak One. Come in, Pak One. Pak One." The air traffic controller's voice is on the verge of tears.
Bannon's voice tomes over the headphones. "Jesus, fucking Christ. These zoomies are sleeping. No. They are dead. The pilots are dead. We are all fucking dead." He chokes on his last sentence and the only sound that comes over the headphones is electrical static.
General Zia's eyes are ablaze at his own miraculous powers. "I'll teach the buggers. Look, it will go up again. Look. Here it goes. Look." He raises his index finger in the air. The plane keeps going down.
Some of the passengers in the VIP pod are sprawled on the carpet now. General Akhtar keeps sitting in his seat. Keeps his safety belt on. Waiting for another miracle.
General Zia raises both his index fingers in the air like an amateur bhangra dancer and shouts: "Now tell me who is trying to kill me? You think you can kill me? Look who is dying now."
Tapeworms are eating through General Zia's heart now. The krait's poison has dulled his pain but he can feel his innards being torn apart. He inhales the cold air-conditioned air in an attempt to hold on to life. He breathes in VX gas.
If they are all trying to kill General Zia, who is trying to kill them?
Before I turn to God, I scream at General Beg, "Sir, please do something. The plane is going down. The pilots are dead. Did you hear that?"
General Beg throws his hands in the air. "What can I do? Who is the aerodynamics expert around here?"
He removes his Ray-Bans and looks out of the window. He doesn't seem very worried.
God, I don't want to be one of those people who turn to You only when their ass is on the line. I don't promise anything. It's not the time to make rash commitments but if You can save one person on that plane let it be Obaid. Please God, let it be Obaid. If there is a parachute on that plane, give it to him. If there are any miracles left in Your power let them happen now. And then we'll talk. I'll always talk to You. I'll always listen to You.
I open my eyes and see Pak's One's tail whiplashing out of a giant ball of orange fire.
First, there is the thunder of seventy-eight tonnes of metal and fuel and cargo propelled by four 4300 horsepower engines colliding, skidding, against the hot desert sand, titanium joints pulling at each other, resisting and then letting go; fuel tanks, full to capacity, boil over at impact and then burst. The desert receives a shower of metal and flesh and sundry objects. It lasts no more than four minutes. Medals go flying like a handful of gold coins flung from the sky, military boots shining on the outside and blood dripping from severed feet, peaked caps hurled through the air like Frisbees. The plane coughs out its secrets: wallets with children's smiling pictures, half-finished letters to mistresses, flight manuals with emergency procedures marked in red, golden uniform buttons with crossed swords insignias, a red sash with the army, navy and air force logos sails through the air, a hand clenched into a fist, bottles of mineral water still intact, fine china crockery with presidential crests, titanium plates still bubbling away at the edges, dead altimeters, gyroscopes still pointing towards Islamabad, a pair of Peshawari slippers, an oil-stained overall with its name-plate still intact; a part of the landing gear rolls and comes to halt against a headless torso in a navy-blue blazer.
Three minutes later the desert receives another shower: twenty thousand litres of A-grade aviation fuel splashes in the air, combusts itself and comes back to the desert. It's a monsoon from hell.
And the flesh; all kinds of flesh: brown melting into white, ligaments, cartilages, flesh ripped from bones, parched flesh, charred flesh; body parts strewn around like discarded dishes at a cannibals' feast.
The charred pages of a slim book, a hand gripping the spine, a thumb with a half-grown nail inserted firmly into the last page.
When Pakistan National Television abruptly interrupts an early-evening soap opera and starts to play a recitation from the Quran, the First Lady waits for a few minutes. This is usually a preamble to breaking news. But the mullah doing the recitation has chosen the longest surah from the Quran and the First Lady knows that he will go on for a couple of hours. The First Lady curses the Information Minister and decides to do some house chores. Her first stop is her husband's bedroom. She picks up the glass of milk from the side table, then puts it back when she notices a black spot on the bed sheet. She looks at it closely and curls her nose at the spot of blood. "Poor man is sick." The First Lady feels a pang of guilt which turns into anger and then utter hopelessness. "He is getting old. He should retire on health grounds if nothing else." But she has known him for too long to harbour any hopes of a serene retirement life. The First Lady picks up the new issue of Reader's Digest Reader's Digest from the side table. There is a cover story about how to put your life back together after your husband has cheated on you. Marriage therapy? she wonders. from the side table. There is a cover story about how to put your life back together after your husband has cheated on you. Marriage therapy? she wonders.
Not for me, she thinks, throwing the bloodstained sheet into the laundry basket.
Our Cessna circles the ball of orange fire. My eyes scan the horizon for a parachute, then the desert for a lonely figure walking away from the fire and smoke. The sky is clear blue and the desert around the ball of fire and flying debris is empty and indifferent; no one is walking out of this inferno. The pilot doesn't have to wait long for his instructions. "It doesn't look good. There is no point landing here." General Beg has made up his mind. "We need to get back to Islamabad."
He ignores my head banging at the back of his seat. "No, we cannot keep going in circles and have one more look. No, young man, we are not dropping you off here. There is nothing to look for. Come on, chin up. Behave like a soldier. We have a country to run."
The last phase of Code Red kicks into action and the desert is assaulted by emergency vehicles of every possible size and description. Trucks full of ordinary soldiers with mission unknown, armoured cars with machine guns cocked, ambulances with oxygen cylinders at the ready, commandos in open-topped jeeps, fire engines with red helmets hanging out the doors, buses full of aircraft technicians as if Pak One has suffered a minor mechanical failure. Barricades are set up, emergency communication systems start crackling with eager voices, miles of red tape are strung around the scene of the crash.
A catering van pulls up as if the dead might feel hungry and ask for an afternoon snack.
A soldier wearing a white mask walks through the rubble carefully, trying to avoid trampling the body parts, picking his way through the pieces of smouldering metal and documents stamped secret, his eyes searching for a sign that would confirm what people in Islamabad want him to confirm. He wonders why anyone would need a confirmation from a scene as hopeless as this. But Pakistan National Television will keep playing the recitation from Quran, the flag will stay at full mast, the rumours will spread across the country but not be confirmed until the evidence is found. The First Lady will not be informed until they have definite proof.
The soldier trips on a decapitated head with glistening hair parted in the middle and finds what he was looking for.
A strange way to get killed, he thinks. It seems like he died many times over. A face broken off just above the nose, moustache half burnt but still twirled, lips and chin melted away to reveal a set of shiny white teeth, frozen in an eternal mocking grin.
As he bends down to pick up his piece of evidence, he notices a copy of the Quran, open in the middle and intact. Not a scratch on it, not a lick of fire or smoke. Before he kisses the Quran and closes it carefully he reads the verse on the page that is open in front of him and tries to recall a half-remembered story about an ancient prophet.