‘It’s so fucking old school,’ Prazma is saying. ‘Just looking at these people you can tell they want to rape me and cut my throat as they come.’
‘It’s because they want to fuck you and can’t. Don’t worry about it. There’s a reason the Boss values you. It’s because you’re good.’
‘Yeah, when this is all over I think the Boss needs to put the soldiers in their place. They defend us with force – yeah, sure, they’re great at that, but media and policy, that shit should all come under my purview.’
‘You are the Crisis Cell, baby. We are.’
Fist touch and high five. ‘We are the fucking Cell.’
We are heading to the wetlands in an armoured vehicle with travelling tuneage on: a turbofolk/trance CD Claire burned. Behind us is a convoy of coaches driven by soldiers. Up ahead, more regular army and camera crews are bundled into a tank. Driving through the northern suburbs, I hear the exchange of fire with rebels, but these are minor drivethrough skirmishes, nothing’s callsigned on my radio.
Outside the streets are ruined from our shelling. We are travelling through Krell, an agric trading town at the head of a conurbation of farms and fields; the rebels had hold of it for a while, but we starved and bombed them out last month, and the Colonel says it is unlikely to be retaken. I hear a shout from a group of men on a destroyed main square, see what might have been a subversive gesture, but we are driving too fast for me to verify. I wonder if Prazma really thinks this will all be over. The enemy could be anyone now. That’s why we need an armoured car and a tank escort. That’s why Prazma and I wear BulletBlocker IIIA twill blazers, picked out with Alia from Amazon one drunken night at the palace. ‘Threat level three-ay, baby,’ I remember her squeeing, and I tingle all over, and think of the party tonight.
I feel Prazma’s hand squeeze around my arm. ‘Don’t mean to insult your profession, babe.’
‘Fuck it. They hate me too. They think I took the soft option. Which I kind of did, but, you know, twenty years getting shot at in army intel, who wouldn’t have?’ I change the subject. ‘So the Curator’s ready to crack? No error?’
‘Yeah. He’s on stage at eighteen hundred hours.’
‘They do say that the Power rejoices more in the return of a single sinner than in the thousands of the just.’ Am I being ironic? I’m not even sure anymore.
A highly respected art gallery boss who went loco when we ‘requisitioned’ his Rembrandt collection, Zlatan had gathered together a five hundred strong militia and held a conference in Turkey that ratified the rebel commitment to what Prazma calls ‘secularism, elections, all that Western reformist crap.’ His raids on our arms dumps and courage in combat impressed the rebels, and he’s the highest ranking rebel commander we have managed to capture so far. Our agents waylaid him in an Istanbul nightclub, and after three months in the Gateway the old man has found a new appreciation for engagement and compromise. He’ll read a prepared statement on state TV, in which he’ll denounce the rebels, and praise Ozymandias.
You don’t need Prazma’s Harvard degree to know that this will look good for us. Before, we were just giving common thieves and rapists a form of words for the cameras, in exchange for parole. ‘But it’s not the same,’ Prazma says. ‘None of those fuckers have the Curator’s presence.’
The wetlands refugee camps are a little depressing. Palis can’t work in this country, so they sit in these open air holding pens until their claims have moved through the various silos of our asylum system. A token few are granted citizenship, but most sit in tents and on carts behind the barbed wire, year upon year, eating the slop our patrols throw them, sinking further into misery and degeneration. The central gate opens and the smell is the first thing that hits us. A crowd of gabbling refugees, pointy-faced and skeletal, swarms our vehicles like ducks to bread. We recently endured the rainy season and I can see tents and sheds afloat on scummy beige water, with things floating in it. There are swirls of flies and mosquitoes, no doubt rats and scavenger-wolves. Several children appear visibly to be suffering from cholera.
Our soldiers jump up out the coaches and round up the Palis. It takes hours. It feels longer. There are a thousand refugees of fighting age, and they all have to be issued with rifles and put on the coach. The Palis keep asking for food, shelter, medicine, things they actually need, and I feel sadness and sympathy, and I hate them for making me feel these things, and I find myself shouting and clubbing some twenty-year old kid with the butt of my own AK. Another man, who perhaps sees through us, starts a gun battle with his rifle and drops one of our soldiers, I have to shoot the stupid fuck, and it creates more tension and hassle.
A child grabs my arm. A girl, I think – with off-brand Nike Air shoes and a weird yellowy cataract on one eye.
‘Kir! Can I fight too!’
One of the ranksmen laughs, and ruffles her hair. ‘Nah, you can’t fight. Your fathers and brothers will fight.’
‘No,’ Prazma says, ‘we take the women and children.’ There’s a pause, and she adds: ‘It looks better.’
The soldier looks at her like she’s the scum of the earth. Then he thrusts a carbine into the kid’s hand.
Eventually the shit gets sorted out, and our convoy heads to the Disputed Sprawl. The compilation has reached that track that goes I’m a hustler, baby/That’s what my daddy made me and Prazma and I sing along and I almost forget what I’m doing here. Then come the warning signs, replicated in Hebrew, more from defiance than bilingual courtesy. I see the settlements up ahead, and the guardposts.
The Palis rush off the coaches for all the world like regular army. They have obviously been pumped up by our staff sergeants. They rush into the Sprawl singing killer’s songs and chanting killer’s chants. It’s a break in the routine, and as a death, beats getting chewed alive by wetland rats.
The ground of the Disputed Sprawl is odd, a strange kind of flinty sand of the kind I remember from the beaches my father used to take me to, when I was a little boy. The Palestinians run up this sparkling slope shooting into the wide meridian sky. In a moment the guardposts are alive. IDF soldiers, fit and well-built, rush from them to protect the settlements. The air is racked by gunfire.
The Palis, for all their spirit, are too weak and stricken to prolong the battle even with arms. They are cut down like cornrows. I see an old man, staggering and proffering papers, some document of authenticity or life story, shot in the head by a female IDF and topple, sheets of foolscap fluttering from his hand. Camera crews race into the killing fields. An Al-Jazeera reporter I know bends over a woman’s corpse, shot in the stomach, intestines and viscera spilling onto that weird sharp earth along with whatever life was harboured there. Another journalist does a piece to camera: ‘Behind me is what has to rank among the worst massacres of displaced Palestinians ever committed by the Zionist entity… we can only hope that the martyrs are not dying in vain; that their enormous sacrifice will inspire our brothers from Palestine and beyond to fight the Zionists to the very last –‘
We are covered by the tank. Prazma is whooping at her iPhone screen and I hear tinny newscast noise coming out of it. ‘They’re repeating our line! The internationals!’
The fighting subsides. The ground is crowded, choked with corpses. The heat is bad and the dead woman lies where she fell, stomach glossy with feeding flies. Blood leaches into the sand, deeper and dark. ‘Come on, let’s round up the convoy.’
‘Fuck!’ Prazma checks her Nautilus. ‘We got to be at Dias in twenty.’
I jump in the armoured car and head back to the city. Four or five of the coaches follow us; the rest will head back after the cleanup operation. We got Infesticons on the player, Prazma is streaming several different channels on her phone, and involved in a gloat-fest call with Claire.
‘Yeah, fuck, their stupid Tuesday demo,’ she shouts. ‘It should be called Tuesday is the Night of Who’s Watching, Baby? Yeah, he’s here. I’ll put you on speakerphone.’
Claire Sahaz’s voice comes through. ‘Hey, Gae-tan. Good work today.’
You know the cliché of things being too quiet? That’s how I feel tracking this tank through the northern Dias suburbs. There has been reported rebel activity here – a hell of a local uprising, which we could only hammer down with airstrikes – but now these smashed streets are silent and predatory. Our coaches negotiate broken buildings and car pile-ups with an eerie prissy precision.
Prazma is saying: ‘What we should do is make like a fake opposition? Have a big fake conference in Dias Central and get a few clean faces to make out they’re like the moderate opposition and –‘
‘What do we call it?’ Crackle and yell. ‘We could call the group… we need a comedy acronym. It has to spell WINEBOOB.’
People pass us, but I can’t make out their faces… and I feel more than ever the instinct that has for over a year told me this adventure is over, not a fear but an absence of fear, the fear from others that I have coasted on all my life.
‘It’s the Tuesday of Stupid Dipshit Demonstration That No One Cares About!’ Claire’s voice feels like it could shatter stone. ‘Hey, Prazma! Wineboob! Wiiiiiine-boooo –‘
The coach in front of me rocks back in flames. There are other explosions around and below and through me. Prazma is screaming and trying to reach under the dash, but I can’t hear what she’s saying, all I do is gaze at the blood on her St Laurent jacket, the vivid soundless movement of her jaws and mouth. Up ahead I see another of our coaches trying to reverse but it’s impossible, you can’t do a U turn in this street, not with the St George statue. Our men scatter from the coach before the vehicle itself is hit by a grenade and I’m yelling in a voice I cannot hear, RPGs, where the fuck did they get RPGs?
There’s smoke in my nose and I can’t hear anything. A squad of rebels walk in casual formation towards our armoured car. They are led by a skinny blonde in bandanna and body armour, who helps me from the car. A cache of grenades is strapped to her chest. The AK-47 is taken from me.
‘Looks like you took a hit, Gaetan.’ I look down: there is indeed a crater of blood on the IIIA twill, probably shrapnel. ‘You better come with us.’
Prazma pulls a pistol. ‘You take him, you take me.’
The woman laughs. There’s something about that laugh. ‘No, girl, you got the Curator’s speech, right? My people will escort you.’
Prazma is taken from her side of the car by a group of clerkly-looking fellows carrying machine guns. We are outnumbered, I’m guessing our own men are either dead or fled. Prazma and I exchange a glance that says I hope you get out of this and if not at least that it’s quick and easy for you.
‘In Paradise, honey,’ she shouts. The men pull her out of sight in a manner that is decisive without disrespect. I’m left with the blonde.
‘On we go, Gaetan,’ she says. ‘Also: I’m taking your tank.’
Up ahead I see our tank is trying to get around the St George’s statue. It’s a silly and futile endeavour, a mammoth trying to hump a mesa building. The expression on the statue’s face seems to me like amused reproach.
One of the rebels bangs on the turret. A figure gets out, gun drawn, and I think there’ll be a shot. But he doesn’t get shot. There are gestures and words, then a handshake. Then our soldier walks away, and the rebel gets into our tank. After a beat, it executes a perfect turn and begins to weave its way through our upended and burning coaches.