Look at those fishmongers out on the docks, howling like a pack of hyenas, holding hands and dancing like there’s no God. Singing their dirty Suez folk songs. That little girl must be eight or nine, and still no headscarf? What the hell is wrong with these people? Papa’d have a heart attack if one hadn’t killed him already.
The creak of my apartment window drowns out the cacophony as I close it. It’s a second of mercy, but the single, cracked pane barely muffles the song. Papa thought moving us from Los Angeles with its bare flesh everywhere would quiet the temptation, but Port Saeed’s got its own whispers of sin.
There’s only one way to silence them.
First I need my nanites. Quick reflexes are for more than just football—the one kind of fun Papa said God sanctioned. I grab my medi-jet from the dresser, press it to my arm. It hisses, driving the microscopic bots through my skin. I pull on my boxer shorts and jeans before slipping on a black-hooded sweatshirt.
God help me, they just started drawing faces on the asphalt with chalk. Art is the gateway to sin! I never did find the words in the Book that said so, but Papa always said true believers learn to read between the lines. Do these people call themselves believers? I’ll give them something to believe.
Selim’s pawn shop is a mess, but I know he’ll have what I’m looking for. The rumor Selim spreads in the apartments of the Port Saeed’s well-to-do is that his shop is a front for grey-market nanite programs. Sex with a beautiful Hollywood AI, a megalomaniac’s wet dream, virtual murder sims, anything government officials frown on publically and smile on privately.
None of which I’m looking for, because the truth that Selim’s rumor hides is that he sells the tools of death in his basement. I can’t just ask him for one—everyone knows every public space is bugged by government security. It’s just a matter of making sure he knows what I’m asking for while convincing government security that I’m asking for something else.
The old man smiles. “You’re becoming a regular, Adam.”
I make a gun with my fingers, point and shoot at a stuffed gazelle’s head on the wall. “I’m looking for a woman. Digital type.”
Selim looks at me sharp and sidelong from behind a glass counter littered with vintage electronics. I guess he didn’t know that I know how to buy a gun in Port Saeed. Why would he? I never bought one before. Not from him, anyway.
“Yes, but is she looking for you?” Selim says.
I flash the contents of my wallet, thumbing the ten bills like a deck of cards. It’s all like some lousy spy movie, but I play the game anyway.
Selim raises the counter flap and rolls a runner carpet behind the counter up, revealing a trap door. He flips it open and nods toward the opening. “Wait inside.”
You wouldn’t know this basement belonged to the shop. A digital photo frame propped on a desk flashes images of a middle-aged woman—kissing a baby girl, posing beside a younger Selim, fishing at the pier. No papers, envelopes or other errant crap of life clutter the desk. In every image, the woman’s hair is covered save a few wisps of blonde hair escaping the headscarf. Good, pious woman. Good Selim.
The door above closes and Selim descends the stairs. “We can talk freely down here.”
I nod at the frame. “You’ve done well with your woman. Got her to cover her head.”
“Najat’s choice, not mine.” Selim stares at the frame and looks like his insides have turned to rice pudding. “She believed covering her hair brought her closer to God and made men see her as an equal.”
I snort. “You should get her closer to your shop. It’s a mess upstairs, could use a woman’s touch.”
“She’s dead.” Selim walks to a locked cabinet. “Gunned down by fanatics.”
“Oh. I—I’m sorry.” Why’d they murder a good, pious woman like that? I glance at the door. Maybe I ought to go home and forget about the fishmongers. After all, the Book says only God knows what’s truly in someone’s heart.
No, like prostitutes they hide nothing and hold nothing sacred. They aren’t like Selim’s wife, they aren’t pious, this is not the same.
Selim fumbles for a key and swings the cabinet’s sandalwood doors open. The smell of gun oil spills out and I inhale it like incense. Arms in gunmetal and walnut line the cabinet’s interior: assault rifles, machine pistols, shotguns. He pulls out a drawer, revealing rows of combat and hunting knives. None of them grab my interest.
“I’m surprised you have all these. Or is that why you do—because of what happened to your wife?”
Selim nods. “A man ought to be able to protect his family.” He pulls out a black Mossberg pump-action. “Don’t have to be too skilled to handle one of these.”
“I’m not looking for a brunette.” A glass case in the cabinet catches my eye, but the glare from the room light masks the contents. I move closer.
The Beretta 9mm in the case, with her graceful lines and flawless finish, is a study in deadly elegance. More importantly, it’s the only cortex gun in the shop—retrofitted with a nanite interface module. As soon as it links up with my nanites, the gun does all the work and I’m just along for the ride.
“How much for the platinum blonde in the case?”
Selim returns the brunette to the cabinet. “The sun and the moon.”
“I’ll pay five hundred.”
“Celestial bodies are cheap where you come from?”
I take out the ten bills and drop them on Selim’s desk. “One thousand.”
Selim glances at the money, then the photo frame. “No.”
“Oh, I get it. A present from your wife, was it?” Strange business Selim runs. What shop owner says no to money?
Selim crosses his arms. “Why do you want the platinum blonde, anyway?”
“It’s like you said. A man ought to be able to protect his family.”
Selim tilts his head. “I thought you lived alone.”
“I’ve got family in Cairo.” Some say the best lies are those closest to the truth. “Street gangs are out of control these days. My brother has three kids. The oldest just won a scholarship to Oxford.”
“Good for him.”
“If he can get to the airport in one piece.”
Selim picks up a Saif & Mubarak .500 from the cabinet. “Nothing will stop a man in his tracks like this beauty. She’s a real head-turner. Local, too.”
“We both know why I want the blonde.” God wouldn’t want me to miss, and with a cortex gun, you can’t. “She’s uniquely capable.”
Selim raises his eyebrows. “Your brother has a nanocore? He won’t be able to make full use of those unique capabilities unless he does.”
I’m a little offended by his surprise. Does he think we’re like those fishmongers, too poor to afford the technology?
“He’s got a nanocore.”
Selim squints. “So your brother asked for a cortex gun?”
Selim’s lost his wife. He’ll be sympathetic if my brother has lost his as well. I turn my back to Selim and shove my hands in my pockets and make my voice tremble. “He tried the other kind before. Home invasion. He missed. They didn’t. Wife’s dead. He doesn’t want to miss next time. Like I said, he’s got three kids.”
The air hangs thick. Does Selim think my voice choked with heartrending emotion, or the crocodile shit I just fed him?
His hand grips my shoulder and I stiffen. Maybe he’s about to shove me through the door.
Selim whispers. “One thousand it is.”
Two o’clock in the morning and the fishmongers are still at it. How is it they work the sea by day—good, honest work that God would approve of—and spit in His face by night with all this singing and dancing? Hypocrites.
The dock’s fish market spills out into the promenade hugging the harbor. It’s high-tide, and the waves crash against the promenade’s concrete breakers. Just a few strollers tonight, and I’ve got enough cover to approach them unnoticed. God is looking out for me.
I duck into a stall about thirty meters from the fishmongers. The stench from the discards nearly makes me gag. I set my parcel down away from the fish guts caking the asphalt. I pull the parcel’s hemp string and unwrap the butcher’s paper.
My platinum blonde is beautiful, a moon-ray against a matte background. The girl on the docks erupts in laughter, and I can hear my own blood rushing past my ears. If God gave us joy, who was I to take it away?
But God gave us limits, and who were they to cross them?
I flick the safety off the nanite interface module and palm the gun. Warm little earthquakes spread up my arm to the base of my skull. The world around me slows and it’s like I’m in a bubble and everything else is trapped in amber.
I peek over the stall counter. Not only has the gun slowed down time, it’s sharpened my vision. I can see the pores on the fishmongers’ faces, the stains on their teeth, the salt crystals on their skin. The girl’s hair undulates through the air, feet kicking out, and from moment to moment she seems impossibly suspended, like she should fall flat on her back, but she doesn’t.
The dancing, the singing, the girl. They all have to stop. The fishmonger family circles around the girl, and for interminable moments she’s hidden by the flowing cloth of the men’s jellabiya and the women’s skirt hems.
A man with a mustache picks up the girl and sits her on his shoulders. How sweet—he’s given me a clear shot. The man—probably her father—circles around so the girl’s aunts and uncles can pinch and tickle her. I brace my elbows on the counter and track the girl’s head. It’s child’s play to keep her in the pistol’s sights, as if my arm’s divinely guided.
I squeeze the trigger. It clicks. The girl is still laughing, and her brains aren’t splattered across the faces surrounding her.
I squat back down behind the counter and check the gun’s safety. It’s off. I slide the magazine out. It’s loaded. I double-check the nanite module. It’s on.
I aim at the girl again and fire. It doesn’t. What the hell? I bang the gun against the counter. The nanite module flashes with light.
Damn, that hurts! I drop the blonde and rub my palm. Pain? I haven’t felt that kind of pain, not since Papa kicked me in the face for staring at girls in swimsuits at the beach. That was good pain, though. Pain with a purpose. This—this was bad.
I snatch the gun from the counter. The fishmongers are so damn engrossed in their sin that they don’t even notice me standing in the stall. The shock from the gun—a short circuit maybe? I toggle the nanite module off and on again, eject the magazine, and ram a new one into the magazine holder. I raise my arm again, and as I bring the gun to bear, it’s like a hundred kilos of sand weighing my arm down.
The damn module’s malfunctioned. Fine, I’ll do it the old-fashioned way. I flick off the module’s power switch.
The amber is gone, and all I see of the fishmongers is a blur of pastels. I move my arm freely, but do I aim at the pink smudge or the brown? If only the girl had been wearing a headscarf.
I can’t shoot what I can’t see, so I power the module back on. There she is. I should’ve guessed the girl was the pink smudge.
I still can’t aim the damn gun. Maybe God wants something else. I read in the Book that if you murder someone, it’s as if you’ve murdered everyone.
No. Papa said that was Shaytan pouring honeyed venom in my ears, and that I’d been poisoned, and he’d no choice but to beat Shaytan out of me. And now the devil was meddling with the blonde, meddling with righteous duty.
“What’s wrong with you?” I crack the flat of the gun against the counter.
The gun’s aimed at the girl. I try to squeeze the trigger, but my finger locks. My arm burns, bends at the elbow, moving as slowly as the fishmongers. My arm’s got a mind of its own.
The blonde’s barrel points at me. My finger tightens around the trigger.
God help me, I’m not ready to be a martyr.
God the pain the pain the pain. Make the ringing stop. Please, take me now God take me take me take me…
Good pain, Papa?
Wracked breaths. The red runs across the pavement, mingles with fish bones. Come back, back to my body. It hurts, Papa, God it hurts!
A voice in my head.
I’m sorry, Adam. Papa?
Pray. While there’s still time.
A woman. Arm tingles when she speaks. Something pulls at the blonde in hand.
Selim. Sad eyes. Trying to take the gun. Can’t resist.
Wait! I need more time. The gun, it curls my fingers around the handle. But stay with us.
“Okay, Naji, okay.” Selim stops pulling but doesn’t let go.
Naji? The woman in the photo at the shop. The gun A.I. Naji. The same. Shit.
Pray to God, Adam. Ask Him for forgiveness. I forgive you. He will, too.
Selim kneels. In my blood. Pastel blurs and murmurs surround us. The pink one pokes its head from behind a column of white.
“He’s beyond redemption.” Selim’s thumb and forefinger close my eyelids. “Let him go, Naji.”
Please Adam! There’s no more time!
Everything’s going white. The sea’s getting louder. Louder. Louder. Papa, is that you?
Okay, Selim, you’re right. Naji sighed—a vibration in the grip. He thought he knew God, but he really only knew his father.
God. Forgive me.
Food For Thought
Platinum Blonde poses several questions revolving around religion, fanaticism, and how we obtain religious knowledge. If we look at how religion is discussed in light of current events, we often see that opinions of a religion are not based on the content of the religion’s texts, but the behavior of the religion’s followers. So this begs the question: what is religion? Is it the beliefs carried by the followers or is it the beliefs expressed in the texts?
Several other questions are also posed by this story. Are fundamentalists redeemable? Is violent extremism (Naji kills Adam) an appropriate response to violent extremism (Adam’s wish to kill the little girl)? Is it dangerous to mix religion and technology?
About the Author
A.A. Leil is an Egyptian-American author of contemporary and science fiction who writes when he’s not surfing digital genomes in his day job as a bioinformatics analyst. He is previously published in Stupefying Stories, The Scientific American guest blog, and has a forthcoming story in the For Whom The Bell Trolls anthology.