So living was an incredible experience, where the most beautiful day of your entire existence could be your last, where sleeping with death guaranteed seeing the next morning, and where a few golden rules were constant. Never walk in the direction of the wind, never turn your back to a window, never sleep in the same place twice, always stay in the sun’s axis, trust in nothing and no one, suspend your breath with the perfection of the living dead on the point of freeing the metal’s salvation. Occasionally, a few variables could slip in, the sun’s position in the sky, the weather, who you were dealing with.
From where he was crouching at the top of the embankment along the path, Toorop towered over his victim. In the west, the sun was lowering onto the horizon, lacquering the ochre earth of the Sinkiang Northern Highlands a volcanic yellow orange. The air was dry, still vibrating with the day’s accumulated heat. It had an unreal purity. It was perfect weather for killing.
A cool wind blew in from the east, from the low grounds, the great Taklamakan Desert. The word in Uygur meant, “the place you enter, but from which you do not depart.” The air, which was torrid in the plains, at this 2000-meter altitude was as sharp as a bayonet sheath. Once the sun had set behind the eternal snow-capped peaks, the air would freeze faster than you could breathe in or release your last breath.
The man was lying on his back. One arm, stretched perpendicular, had been stranded on a little thistle bush. The other was folded beneath him. The man was still alive. It wasn’t his lucky day. Each breath produced a reflex shudder of muscles. An exhausted groan intermittently escaped his blood-filled mouth. Toorop was giving him a grace period of a few minutes, at most. Minutes that would seem like hours. The 12.7 mm bullet had entered the biological structure diagonally, near the liver. Toorop knew, however, that it could have come to rest in the cerebellum, in the femoral artery, or in an even more sensitive organ.
The young guy’s face, like a chemical test, revealed the surprise of a life viciously sliced by a crazy projectile turning back upon itself on impact, before zigzagging in all directions inside the body. This type of ammunition diffuses its energy with such intensity that, in addition to physiological trauma, the shock wave it puts in motion provokes serious nerve damage. A beautiful Manchu face, not more than twenty; the watery eyes endlessly pondering the fragility of existence faced with the metal of pain.
Toorop remembered the I-Ching aphorism to which the fourteenth of the Thirty-Six Stratagems referred. “It is not I who seek the young fool; the young fool seeks me.” The 14th stratagem was curiously entitled “Raise a corpse from the dead,” and went like this:
He does not let himself be used who can still act for his own purposes.
He will plead to be used who can do nothing more.
One must use the useless for one’s own ends.
In such circumstances, this sermon was no more obscure than another. The agonizing man had served his ends well. Climbing down the embankment, Toorop knew what had to be done.
Three young buzzards had just alighted, croaking, next to the body. Not paying it the slightest attention, they started furrowing into the olive-green jacket, boring through the cloth with a single honed stroke, to recover a piece of bloodied meat they’d gulp down with a jerky head gesture. Toorop had a clear vision of the condemned man’s ultimate reflex movement, trying to delay his end. The carcass shuddered; a trembling hand attempted in vain to raise itself from the earth and scribbled upon it an illegible message. For an instant, Toorop considered the natural process occurring. His gaze didn’t even try to avoid the bloody rosette constellating the soldier’s abdomen where the birds were working, or, on the orange-yellow earth around him, the black puddle with crimson contours that the rocky moor drank up avidly.
As he approached, one of the buzzards, flapping his wings, let out a dissatisfied croak and straightened into a posture of aggressive ostentation. The two others continued to feast on the man’s stomach, impassively wading in a carpet of blood, spongy tissue, and intestine parts.
A smell of guts and shit tickled his nostrils at the whim of the wind’s breath. The dead or dying man’s perfume left his mouth with a residue like the aftertaste of rank beer. Toorop had just extracted the “Schiskov” from the holster on his back. It was an Aurora, a polyvalent weapon equipped to deal with any kind of urgent situation, and quite simply the world’s best assault rifle. Toorop cocked the breech with a sharp movement, aimed, and shot a bullet smack into the soldier’s head.
The gunshot vibrated for a long time in the natural echo chamber of the high mountains. Toorop heard the man’s sigh in it, finally delivered from this world of flesh and steel, finally freed from life, and from the three buzzards.
As the birds of prey fired off toward the raw dusk sky, wings bloodied, and the shot’s echo resonated in the immense space before him, Toorop thought a passage from Rumi, or a verse from Dead Man Walking, was in order. But he felt a sweet vibration running along his thigh, cutting short his flow of thoughts. His hand plunged into the pocket of his battle-dress and emerged armed with a small Motorola GPS cell phone. The LCD screen flashed a message from General Command, informing him of the presence of Chinese drones in the sector. It was alphanumeric, encrypted by a special CIA program that those PLA number-crunching shit faces could keep trying to decode. Even their highly parallel processing Fujitsus developed with Yakuza funds in Sichuan underground factories couldn’t touch it. According to the Russian dealers who supplied the program, it was impenetrable. The sum of the planet’s computer resources, even with fifty years of uninterrupted work, couldn’t crack it. Four-eyes with the British accent, in charge of the demo for the Uygur guerrillas, wanly appreciating with a nod of the head, called it Transfinite Re-encoding with Chaotic Modelization. For the Uygurs, it simply meant Allah didn’t want the PLA to decode their communications. That was the least He could do.
Toorop turned to the west, where the sky combined azure flashes with milky, napalm-hued machines. He knelt down beside the body and started the looting. A local make automatic, an exact replica of a 1911 model Colt. With two full chargers to boot. A French make grenade. In the jacket pocket, he scored a pack of Kools made in Peking. He hated Kools but he could exchange them for Russian Marlboros or Indian Camels.
He flipped the body over with his foot, rolling it along the rocky ground. The AK-47 was strapped across its back, the butt facing up. Intact within was a brand new 30-bullet magazine, fresh out of the assembly lines of the Ministry of Military Planning. Toorop retrieved the booty with an experienced hand. It was the law of the mountain. The transparent secret of nature. The hunting code. The ritual exchange of life and death fetishized through trophy. All that shit, just a habit. That went back to the origins of the world.
With an assured gesture, Toorop lifted the sleeves of the mountain jacket; the GPS biobeeper made a slight, black carbon swell, running just under the skin near the left wrist, above a very pretty gold watch. The main function of the biobeeper, copied from US Army technology, was to send out a digital radio signal on a regular basis indicating the position and metabolic state of its wearer. For now, a small red diode pulsed there in silence, as if saying its wearer wasn’t at his best, and that he’d stay at this position for a while.
With the tip of his knife, Toorop pierced the epidermis, disembedded the small component, and threw it into the ravine, and the gold watch into the bottom of a pocket.
He turned the body over again and finished the search by reaching for its magnetic ID tag and a few crumpled bills in different local currencies. The military tag was just to give the PLA bureaucrats some work. The clams would be for later, for Almaty slut dives, a few new-look Es from Kazakh dealers, possibly a Russian version Taiwanese flick shown in a Soviet period movie theater, its heavy constructivism and patched-up seats having witnessed the parade of asses of all the generations since Khrushchev. At least.
Toorop emerged from his reverie and walked over to the Kirghiz horse, a beautiful gray mare mottled with black, which he mounted without resistance. His own had succumbed to a bad fall three days earlier. This mare was the pure bounty of Allah, as the Uygurs would have said. She was both robust and slightly wild, young and experienced, a real mountaineer ride. He caressed her muzzle, took her by the reins, climbed onto the PLA regulation saddle, its brass buckles stamped with the red star, and moved down the path towards the body. He gave it a last look, hung the Barrett on the saddle, placed his Aurora in his back holster, slung the Chinese AK-47 across his chest, and with a yap and a kick in the ribs, led the animal towards the sunny bluff, turning his back to the white heights of the Turugart Shankou.
The hoof sounds on the rocks covered the croaking of the buzzards circling over the body behind him. Later, at the bottom of the pass, a sharp gust of cold wind made him realize that the sun had just disappeared behind the mountains. A slate-blue shadow swooped down onto the lunar gray stones. The sky was turning an abyssal violet. The first stars were visible. A crescent moon appeared between two snowy summits, great ashy mounds caught in a shaft of black light and lacquered in mercury. The lunar orb would reach its zenith in the heart of night.
It was breathtakingly beautiful.
Kill two men a week, at least. Live on the prowl, levying arms, munitions, food, drugs, cash money—or plastic, clothes, horses. Endlessly hound enemy communications to predict border-patrol movements. Be constantly on the move, by night. Avoid search and destroy drones. Sometimes wait for days on end before you see a silhouette appear in the viewfinder. Try to have some kind of silent dialogue with the prey before you pull the trigger, and again merge into the dark, melt into it, sleep a bit, wait for a new morning, a new man to kill.
This was his life now, and Toorop had no complaints. As he remarked long ago to a war correspondent in search of “picturesque characters,” someone had to do it. A handful of men had to fight for lost causes in the world’s last frontiers, and sometimes for much worse. The wheel of history had to go on crushing lives if the rest of the world wanted to continue feeding on their TV screens.
At the time, the girl from the BBC hadn’t answered. Her digital video camera locked onto him like the globular black eye of a vampire machine. Toorop knew instinctively that she thought he was crazy, and he wondered how she’d seen through him so fast. Only a freak would spend his time in the steppes and mountains of Central Asia with two or three Chinese strategy books in his pocket, an arctic survival blanket from the Russian Army capable of weathering temperatures lower than 250 degrees centigrade, a US Air Force First Aid Kit complete with emergency supplies, and whole boxes of new-age methamphetamines in all possible forms, each geared to a specific use. Epidermal patches, auto- injectable capsules, pills for sensory or motor activity reinforcement, anti-fatigue bracing, oxygenation, red blood cell count, memory tone, or information processing capacity. Better than a Tour de France cycling peloton, he’d said, smiling. The modern headhunter’s pharmacy.
He didn’t give the girl the complete list on the spot. He just muttered something like: “The science of war does not allow for error.”
Journalists, especially Western ones, constantly had to be reminded of the basics.
Excerpted from Babylon Babies by Maurice G. Dantec. Copyright © 2008 by Maurice G. Dantec. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.