May 2007 Challenge: "Salvation"
Supermax 109: "Shaheed"
by Juzam Djinn
My name is Dawud Jaffar. I am a prisoner.
I got a letter from my wife today. Not a recording—a real, hand-written letter. Kalila’s a very traditional woman, in some ways.
Since her letter came, I’ve just been sitting in my cell, thinking about my life, and the story of my life. About things I’ve done, and things I should have done instead. For the past hour or so, I’ve been thinking about Butrus ibn Yusuf Shaheed, and something he told me, not long before he died.
Of course, his name wasn’t Shaheed when I knew him: he wasn’t dead yet. And I never heard anybody call him Butrus ibn Yusuf. Everybody just called him Peter, or Pete, or, jokingly, the Rock.
Peter was one of my fidayun, during the New Palestine intifada. He was a member of the colony’s Christian community. That’s one reason why they called him the Rock.
When the Cardassians occupied New Palestine, the Muslims were the first to fight back. The Jews and Christians had counselled patience and compromise. But once blood had been spilled, the People of the Book lined up solidly behind the Believers.
Ibn Ibrahim would have been proud. Muslims, Jews, and Christians—united by his memory, and by his vision of a new, pluralistic Palestine rising Phoenix-like from the radioactive ashes of the old. Together, they gave the Cardassians hell.
That’s where I came in. Six years ago, Starfleet Intelligence assigned me to infiltrate the New Palestine Maquis. As an Arab Muslim, I should have been perfect for the job. My home world, Minaret, is a fundamentalist backwater: its inhabitants have turned their backs on the cosmos, and see themselves as the whole dar-al-Islam. When I was old enough to think for myself I rebelled, embraced the secular ideals of the Federation, and finally got off Minaret by joining Starfleet. My mother eventually forgave me, but my father never has. We haven’t spoken since.
I was able to get inside the New Palestine Maquis without any difficulty. But there was one contingency for which nobody planned: I met the love of my life—Kalila. She told me why she had resigned from Starfleet, gave me her copy of Ibn Ibrahim’s book, and explained the parts I didn’t understand.
Before long, I was in love—partly with Ibn Ibrahim’s dream, but mostly with her. I deserted from Starfleet, married Kalila, and formed my own resistance unit. That’s how I met Peter, and how he became Butrus ibn Yusuf Shaheed.
Before the resistance began, Peter had been a graduate student at the University of New Jerusalem, writing a dissertation about the history of Old Palestine, back on Earth. He was ordinarily pretty quiet, and steady under fire, but once an operation was over, he couldn’t stop talking. It was his way of releasing tension. That’s how I wound up walking behind him, on Aldalia Prime, that day, listening to him go on and on about narrative theory.
We had just finished a successful raid on a small Cardassian military installation. Nine of us had flown to the system in our Maquis raider, the Altair
, and landed in some nearby mountains, below the tree line. We’d crept down to the base, levelled it with a heavy photon mortar, and then retreated. The Cardassians had pursued us, but they were too slow. By the time we got close to our landing site, they were out of tricorder range.
The raider was just over that next ridge, and everyone was beginning to relax—especially Peter. He was explaining how people need stories to give their lives meaning. “The events in our lives have no meaning in themselves,” he said. “It’s the stories we make up to explain those events that give them meaning.”
I looked back over my shoulder. Peter was off in his own world, waving his arms, lecturing to a phantom audience. Behind him, Moshe was rolling his eyes and making a jerk-off gesture. I turned back so Peter wouldn’t see me smile. “Really,” I said.
“Oh, yes,” he said. We had just crested the ridge.
“Intelligent beings require
stories to give meaning to their existence.” The ship was just up ahead, through the trees.
“A story provides a structure for our perceptions; only through stories do facts assume any meaning whatso—”
I heard a meaty ‘thud’. Our point man, Hanif, was flung backwards, like he’d been hit by an invisible car.
“—ever,” said Peter, startled.
There was a loud ‘crack’ as Hanif sprawled out on the ground. I hit the dirt, and shouted: “Sniper!
Get down! Get under cover!
The rest of them scattered and went prone—except for Shoshanna. I saw her crouching behind a boulder, leaning her back against the rock. “No!” I shouted. “Shoshanna, get down! Get—”
There was a small explosion behind her back, and a larger, wetter explosion out the front of her tunic. Blood and rock fragments flew everywhere. Shoshanna flopped onto her face and lay still.
I thought. “Fall back!” I shouted. “Back down below the ridge! Move!
I got up and ran, crouched over, zigzagging back and forth. I had just turned sharply to the right when a tree trunk exploded close by, to my left, showering me with splinters. My skin crawled. If I had kept going straight, the sniper would have hit me between the shoulder blades.
Once we had all scrambled back down below the ridge, Marid said: “What the hell—”
“Hold on,” I said. I did a quick head count: Kalila, Marid, Yasmin, Ali, Moshe, Hassan—and me. Only two down—and we still had the mortar.
Kalila had her tricorder out. “Anything?” I said. She shook her head.
Okay, I thought. This is bad. But not hopeless. We can make it through this. I took a deep breath, to steady myself, got everyone’s attention, and explained the situation:
Somewhere, up on the mountainside, out of tricorder range, probably between one and two kilometres away, there was a Cardassian sniper with a standoff rifle.
Standoff rifles are projectile weapons—man-portable railguns. They have a muzzle velocity of two thousand metres per second and an effective range of six kilometres. They fire 4.4mm spoon-pointed bullets—just pellets, really. But those little pellets are made of delanium-310: they weigh fifty-six grams apiece, and when they’re moving faster than sound they’ll penetrate almost anything. I’ve seen a Starfleet marksman use a captured weapon to shoot holes in a starship hull plate. Shoshanna’s boulder was no protection at all.
The Cardassians designed the standoff rifle for use against materiel—vehicles and installations. But it’s effective against personnel targets as well. The spoon-point on the bullet makes it tumble through soft tissue, dumping all its kinetic energy at once. That’s why Hanif went flying backwards. I’ve been told that some people do back flips and cartwheels, flopping like rag dolls, when they’re hit by standoff-rifle rounds.
No energy beam. No muzzle flash. No recoil, and no report—just the sonic boom as the bullet leaves the barrel at Mach 6. The standoff rifle sounds like a military sharpshooter’s wet dream, and it is—but it’s not perfect. It started life as a part of a computer-controlled multi-barrelled anti-missile point-defence weapon, and it’s too much gun for most shooters. It comes equipped with electro-optical sights and computer-assisted targeting, but even expert marksmen can’t realize more than a fraction of its potential. On most M-class planets, for example, at ground level, six kilometres is over the horizon. In practice, Cardassian snipers engage their targets at ranges of less than three kilometres.
In addition, the rifle generates a lot of heat, both from the current flowing through the rails, and from the friction between the hypersonic bullet and the barrel. Standoff riflemen who fire too many shots too quickly will give away their positions on thermal scans. The Cardassians train their operators to fire slow, deliberate aimed shots and ignore fleeting targets of opportunity.
Even so, the standoff rifle is a formidable weapon. During the Border Wars, when they were first used in action, Cardassian snipers massacred entire landing parties who never knew what hit them. Even if his Federation victims could figure out what was happening, the sniper could use his weapon to disable their landing craft, and stop them from escaping. It was ugly there, for a while, until Starfleet developed effective counter-sniper tactics.
“Dawud,” said Kalila, holding up her tricorder. “I’m picking up something. Back down the valley—the way we came.”
Our pursuers. Damn. There wasn’t much time. “Okay,” I said. “Listen. Everybody still have their smoke grenades?”
They did. We hadn’t needed them during the attack on the base. “Good,” I said. “This is what we’re going to do. The raider’s not far from here, so we’re going to smoke our way forward. We’ll throw a grenade over that ridge, and then move up. Then we’ll throw another, and move up again. Once we reach the raider, we’ll get the hell out of here. Clear?”
“What about Hanif and Shoshanna?” said Peter.
“They’re gone,” I said. I stood up, took out my grenade, clicked the button with my thumb, and threw it. Within a minute, the ridge was blanketed with a dense cloud of chemical smoke. I gripped my phaser rifle. “Move up on the left edge of the cloud,” I said. “Fifteen metres. Then throw another, straight ahead.”
We moved up into the cloud. After about fifteen metres, we stopped, and Marid threw his grenade in the direction of the raider. We waited another minute. At last, I said. “Okay, let’s—”
There were two noises: a loud thunk, off in the direction of the raider, followed by the crack of the railgun’s bullet. I stopped.
“What in God’s name was that?” said Moshe.
After a second, I knew. “Fall back,” I said.
Once were back down below the ridge, I told them: the ‘thunk’ we heard was the sound of a railgun bullet hitting our starship. The sniper was letting us know that our plan wasn’t going to work. The raider wasn’t going anywhere.
I thought hard. Like I said before, I knew the drill—but unfortunately, for us, the drill wasn’t all that useful. Those counter-sniper tactics I mentioned exploit the standoff rifle’s one remaining serious weakness: it shoots bullets. A battlefield scanner can track a bullet’s flight trajectory back to its point of origin. If that point is within range of your phasers, you can shoot back, and assault by rushing from cover to cover—preferably with help from a friendly sniper. If it’s out of range—and it usually is—you can either envelop it on the ground, or bombard it with heavy weapons. I personally favour calling down a photon torpedo from orbit.
We had our phasers, and we had the mortar: according to the tactical manual, we should have been able to deal with a standoff rifleman. Our problem was, we didn’t have a battlefield scanner—just a few tricorders. We could use those to find the direction of incoming bullets—but not the range. Without that last, critical piece of information, the sniper could be anywhere on a straight line all the way to the mountaintop.
We could have used the sensors on the raider—if we could reach it. But our unseen friend had made it clear that if we tried to reach the raider, he was going to shoot it full of holes. A hole through the crew cabin, and we might be able to patch it before we lost our entire air supply. A hole through the warp sponson, and we might still be able to create a warp field. A hole through the avionics bay, and—well, I’d never tried to fly a raider without instruments. I wasn’t even sure it was possible.
Kalila said: “Why hasn’t he done that already?”
I said: “What?”
“Shot up the raider.”
Good question. I thought about that for a minute. Then it came to me.
“He wants to keep our hopes up,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
“So he can kill us all,” I said. “He’s probably in contact with the pursuit force, from the base. He knows how close they are, and how little time we have. He wants us to try to take him out, so he can shoot us all himself.” Cocky bastard, I thought. Still, that was information we could use.
“They’re getting closer,” Kalila said, scanning for our pursuers. “Are we going to rush him?”
“I don’t see any other choice.” Maybe we could divert him—get him to shoot in one direction while we charged him from another. The trouble was—
Just then, Peter spoke up. “Sir,” he said, “Do we have any photon grenades left? For the mortar?”
I looked at Hassan. “Yeah,” he said. “Six. Why?”
“Then I have an idea,” said Peter.
Once he was done explaining, I said: “That’s brilliant. That’s what we’ll do.”
I gave the orders. Kalila went out wide on the left flank, with her tricorder. Moshe went out wide, with another tricorder, on the right. When they were about a hundred meters apart, they took up their positions, and I linked my tricorder to theirs. Marid and Hassan set up the mortar, set their six remaining photon grenades for maximum yield, and linked their fire-control computer to my tricorder. I called up a topographic map of the area, and put it onscreen.
When everybody was in position, I said: “Now we just need a way to tempt him into shooting. I’ll take the remaining smoke grenades, and make it look like—”
“There’s no time,” said Peter, firmly. With his phaser rifle at the ready, he stood up, ran up the slope, and vanished over the ridge into the rapidly-thinning smoke.
Yasmin screamed. I shouted: “Peter! Peter!
” But it was too late. I never did see what happened. But when I heard the crack of the rifle shot, I knew, in my heart, that Peter was dead.
“Oh, God! Oh, my God!” said Yasmin, her hands over her mouth.
For a second, I just stood there, in shock. Then I looked down at my tricorder screen. An obtuse triangle had appeared over the map of the mountainside. The bottom of the triangle was a straight line between A and B’s positions. At the bottom left corner it said 64 DEGREES 1.29 KILOMETRES. At the bottom right corner it said 112 DEGREES 1.33 KILOMETRES. At the peak of the triangle the word TARGET flashed.
Peter had said: “We can triangulate. Take two tricorders and put them in widely separate spots. When the bullet leaves the barrel, it’ll create a sonic boom. The tricorders will pick up the direction of the boom, and plot a straight line in that direction.”
“Where the lines intersect—that’s where the sniper will be.” He paused, looked apologetic. “That’s how they found hidden artillery batteries, on Earth, during the great European wars of the early twentieth century. It’s called sound-ranging.”
I uploaded the map to the mortar’s computer and snarled: “Fire!”
Once the mortar’s computer had a firing solution, it adjusted its aim and elevation automatically. When the adjustments were complete, Marid and Hassan loaded and fired their six photon grenades as fast as they could.
I saw the flashes first, as each grenade hit. Then the sound of the concussions came rolling down the mountainside. After the sixth explosion, I stood up and shouted: “Run! Run to the raider! Move!
Hassan cried: “What about the mortar?”
“Leave it!” I shouted, stopping to look over my shoulder. “Come on!
We ran to the raider through the lingering haze left by the smoke screen. I don’t know if the sniper was dead, or merely stunned, but we got onboard the raider, got the engines powered up, and got off the ground without any further incident. That one bullet went right through the cabin, drilling two neat little holes through the hull, port and starboard. We managed to find them both and patch them before we lost our entire air supply.
That’s how Peter became Butrus ibn Yusuf Shaheed. Shaheed means ‘martyr.’ He sacrificed his own life, to save ours. He saved us all.
Now, six years later, in my cell aboard the prison hulk USS Lilienthal
, with Kalila’s letter open beside me, I find myself thinking about what Peter said—about the stories we tell ourselves, to make sense of our lives.
Peter was the hero of his own story. His death was rich with meaning—for him. Greater love hath no man than this. He laid down his own life for his friends, for his world, and for Ibn Ibrahim’s dream. The rest of us would survive. New Palestine would survive.
Only, we didn’t.
My wife and I were lucky. A few months after the raid on Aldalia Prime, we were caught by Starfleet, and sent to prison. A few months after that, Cardassia joined the Dominion, and the Maquis were exterminated. Marid, Yasmin, Ali, Moshe, Hassan—all dead.
To make matters worse, the Dominion decided to make an example out of New Palestine. The colony was bombed out of existence, from orbit. After the Dominion War, the Federation sent relief and rescue ships to the former DMZ, looking for survivors from the Maquis colonies. They didn’t find any survivors on New Palestine. Ibn Ibrahim’s New Jerusalem is dust. I threw away my Starfleet career for nothing.
I could handle that. I could even handle being in prison, for years, without Kalila, because I knew that one day they’d have to let me out, and we’d be together again. Love conquers all. Right?
Right. That letter I got today? It’s a “Dear John” letter. Kalila is divorcing me. She wrote it in her own hand. Like I said—she’s very traditional, in some ways.
So now everything I’ve worked for, fought for, sacrificed for—it’s all gone. There’s nothing left. Nothing means anything.
Where’s my story now?