One Small Step
"Ali, I need to see you.” Ahmed was calling on his cell phone. Ali had learned that when Ahmed called, you came or there would be hell to pay. Ali was both expecting and dreading this call. He knew what Ahmed was about to ask him to do.
As Ali arrived at the blue domed building were Ahmed held court, he saw Sharif arriving too. It was all part of what he had been expecting. As usual, Ahmed had a big smile on his face. "I have succeeded in arranging a deal with al Qaeda to take half of the nuclear triggers off our hands. I've made a tidy profit from the deal, so you will be rewarded handsomely for delivering them to Mustafa al Safi in the tribal territories. I can't tell you how important this mission is. Getting the triggers past the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and all the operatives in the tribal territories will not be easy, but I trust you can do it. You will leave in the morning.”
The hair stood up on the back of Ali's neck as he hurried back to his market stall. He just knew his blood pressure was up. He could think of nothing that could stop him from carrying out Ahmed's request. That night when he went to bed, he lie awake trying to think of something, but nothing short of killing Ahmed seemed to come to mind. It only had been two weeks since they'd come back from their mission to Georgia. The shipments had all arrived and the warehouse was full. He hadn't had time to think of a plan that would work.
And then it happened. At precisely 1:32 a.m. An earthquake registering 7.56 on the Richter scale, measured at Ashgabat, struck Mary. Ali was in his bed in his second-floor apartment when the building collapsed. He could hear people yelling from underneath as he evacuated the building. He went back and pulled an old lady and her grandson from the building. He walked to the marketplace and found that it was quickly becoming a refugee camp for the frightened residents of Mary. Strangers were already occupying his stall. Somehow, the awning had stayed up. In so many others, everything was knocked down. Aftershocks measuring as much as 4.0 kept occurring, adding to the chaos in the dark. A bright, near full moon helped, but it also cast eerie shadows on the rubble that had once been buildings.
It was just the opportunity Ali needed. Walking against the crowds of people fleeing the center of the city, it took him nearly in a half hour to reach the Bougainvillea. The restaurant was all caved in and he saw no signs of life except the occasional dog wandering around aimlessly looking for food or its master. He worked his way around the broken buildings behind the restaurant until he found the one he was looking for. He could see the colors of the weapons and shiny metal glowing in the light of the moon through cracks in the broken timbers that used to be Ahmed Shaw's arms warehouse.
Ali looked around to see if anyone was watching him. Although he could hear the cries of people fleeing in the distance, and some still trapped in distant buildings, the immediate area, bathed in moonlight, was eerily quiet. While it would have been nice to set off a few of grenades to get things started, Ali knew that he needed time to escape the explosions that would soon follow. Instead, he used a match. Somewhere near the middle of where he could see many wooden boxes of ammunition, he lit a punky beam near some oil that had spilled in the quake. It flared up quickly and hot, so he started to run. Ali stayed to the middle of streets, and moved carefully so as not to trip on anything. He covered the mile or so to the edge of town in about seven minutes, by that time, he could clearly see flames in more than one place. Apparently the earthquake had also started other fires. While he watched, he saw the flare, and then, counting off about five seconds, heard the crack and felt the concussion of the first explosion.
And then all hell broke loose! The explosions were rapid-fire, one after another. The sky lit up like day. The sound was deafening. The ground shook worse than the earthquake. The people of Mary hid and cowered wherever they could. It was five hours before the explosions ceased and the traces of dawn could be seen in the east. Not only had the earthquake damaged almost every structure in the city, the warehouse fire and explosions had claimed the center of Mary as well. The thought of it made Ali sad. He knew many good people who lived there. He hoped against hope that he hadn't killed anyone. In his heart he knew he had.
Help arrived on the road from Ashgabat and from Kabul. Helicopters swarmed overhead. Cargo planes landed at the airport, and airdropped relief supplies. Ali assisted wherever he could, setting up shelters and finding help from the air dropped supplies.
"Ali, Ali! I'm so glad I found you! I thought you might be dead!" A dirty, disheveled Ahmed Shah burst from the crowd to hug him. His breath heavy with the alcohol he had been drinking. "Some of the guys told me that the warehouse was what blew up. I can't find Sharif anywhere. I think he was there, in the warehouse, when it happened. We had just left the Bougainvillea when she collapsed--what a shame!“
"I'm ruined, Ali, ruined. I used all my family's money for that deal. Not only do I owe them, I had promised those nuclear triggers to al Qaeda. When they find out, I'll have Allah and hell to pay! I'm going to retire, fade from the scene. I only hope that my uncle will take me now that I've dishonored our family. Come with me, Ali. The Mercedes is still okay, I think. I'm leaving in the morning.” It was already nearing noon.
Ali hugged his friend and adversary one more time. "No, Ahmed. I can't leave these people now. I must stay and help them. I'll catch up with you in Islamabad, okay?"
Ahmed shrugged his shoulders, put his head down, and wandered off as if he didn't know exactly where he was going. Ali didn't know whether he found the Mercedes intact or not. He never saw Ahmed Shah again.