Bright knew it had gone wrong when the trucks eased into position on either side of his van. "حزب الخلافة" was spraypainted on the sides. He knew he was in big trouble when he saw the men in the beds of the trucks point rifles at him. He gritted his teeth, but slowed down as a pick-up truck swung in ahead of them. He thought about stopping and trying to give them the slip that way, but there was a fourth coming up from behind, boxing them in.
"Can we fight our way past?" asked Brunwick. The stocky biologist held the rifle almost as though he knew what he was doing.
"Not unless you've just become bulletproof," Bright said. He turned to his six passengers. "Okay, we're caught. I don't know who by yet. If it's the government, they're going to be pissed, but they'll probably hold us long enough for the Foundation to try getting us out."
Advani was on his cell phone, letting their contact know that they'd been compromised. He was riding shotgun, as he and Bright were the least-conspicuous people in the group. Especially Bright, wearing an Egyptian body.
"What if they're terrorists?" asked Sandler. His bushy eyebrows would have reached to a younger man's hairline.
"They are," said Jacobs. He was the senior of the two agents in the vehicle. "If this were the government, they'd have armored vehicles. They'd have a show of force. They wouldn't just hem us in like this."
"Will we be okay?" squeaked Lopez. The young researcher looked barely out of her teens.
Bright almost said no, they almost certainly weren't, but something in her face made him go for the comforting lie. "They're probably just interested in ransom," Bright said. "They probably don't know who we really are. It's probably bad luck. They saw some Westerners, and they want to make a scene. We stay calm, we wait for someone to come get us. Everyone put down your weapons. If it's at all possible, I'll figure out a way to get us through this." He actually had a half-formed plan in mind, but it depended on how greedy their captors were, and how perceptive they were. It was a pity he didn't speak more Arabic.
The trucks guided them off the main road and southeast. A few miles out, the trucks stopped, and men with rifles jumped out. They stormed onboard, yelling in Arabic, grabbing at them, pulling them out and then hitting them as they threw them to the ground. Bright let them, knowing better than to fight back. He heard Brunwick try to take a swing at one of the guards, and heard the shot, wincing. He could hear Sandler and Lopez crying out. Jacobs and Advani didn't say a word.
They were searched thoroughly, their phones taken away. Even the beacon hidden in his shoe was found and crushed. That made things a little more complicated. He'd been hoping for a quick rescue. The Foundation might take a little longer now.
Bags were placed over their heads and their hands were cuffed behind them as they were loaded into one of the trucks. He heard Brunwick's groaning, so apparently they hadn't killed him yet. Oddly, no one touched the amulet.
"You do not move!" one of them yelled in his ear. "You understand? You move, I shoot you!"
Occasionally, one of the others would move, and he'd hear them cry out after they were corrected. He held still. He had a lot of experience being a captive. He even recognized some of the techniques the guards were using to intimidate them. It helped, a little. Not much.
They were pushed out of the truck and herded indoors. It smelled like livestock inside. They were pushed down, and they heard the door shut.
"Are-" Advani began, but Bright shushed him.
"اسكت!" a man shouted. "عندي كلاشنكوف!"
Bright didn't know much Arabic, but he understood "kalashnikov" well enough.
After a few hours, a man came in and removed the hoods. He wore a military fatigues with a sword hanging at his side. A scarf covered his face. Several other men were behind him holding AK-47s at the group. One man was operating a camera. "You are prisoners of Hezb Alkhalifah. We know about your Foundation. You spit in the face of Allah."
Son-of-a-bitch, Bright thought. Someone sold them out. He wondered who.
"You, with the necklace. You are Doctor Bright. We know all about you." The man reached out to touch the amulet, but his hands were covered with leather gloves. "This is you. This is your soul. You are an abomination. We will show the world we stand against such things."
One of the men took a knife and cut Bright's ear off. He gritted his teeth.
"Was it a Muslim whose body you wear, kafir? Whose life did you steal? You are a ghoul!" the man with the scarf shouted.
"Do your worst," he said, and immediately regretted it. This wasn't an action movie.
The knife came down into his eye, and he saw no more.
He woke up sometime later, disoriented. He could tell he was in another body. Had he been rescued? No, his hands were still cuffed behind his back. His knee had a sharp, hot ache.
He shifted to a semi-sitting position. He was in a large body, he could tell that much. Strong. He looked around, and saw Jacobs, Sandler, Advani and Lopez. Realization hit. He looked down to see Brunwick's large frame. Those sons of bitches.
"Brunwick?" Sandler whispered.
Bright shook his head. Brunwick's head.
Sandler started crying. Bright hadn't realized they were that close. A cynical part of his mind wondered if the man was just frightened that the same would happen to him.
He looked over to where he'd been executed. The body was already gone, but the blood was still pooled on the dirt floor. They appeared to be alone.
"How are we going to get out of this?" asked Lopez.
"I don't know," Bright said. "Let me think."
The beacon was gone. The terrorists knew who he was, knew what the amulet did. There was no telling when the Foundation would be back.
He wasn't afraid of dying. Even if they tried destroying the amulet, it was unlikely they'd manage here a task he hadn't managed with the best equipment.
However, he didn't want to see any more of his team die. He needed to figure out a way to get out of this. Somehow.
He didn't sleep the entire night. He kept trying to come up with a plan. If only the Foundation would hurry up and rescue them.
In the morning, they came for him again. Again, the man with the scarf came in, and again the camera was set up. He was pulled to his feet, his knee nearly buckling under him, before they wrestled him into position.
"Again, we have the kafir Doctor Bright. He lives because that amulet steals the life of others, puts him into their body. We have let him steal the life of his friend. His own friend, he steals the life from! Now he must die again."
The knife came down, this time for his throat, but he was ready. Brunwick was nothing if not strong. He lunged with his good knee, trying to touch the guard with his necklace.
He had just a moment's confused vision from the man before the shots rang out, and he died again, twice.
He woke up, and this time saw Advani, Sandler, and Lopez. Jacobs, then. Ten little indians, he thought.
He was tied up more securely, already in the position where he'd been executed twice before. Gagged, too. He could feel the sticky blood on his pantlegs, smell the older blood starting to stink. They weren't taking any chances this time.
The others were looking at him in pity, revulsion, and fear. They must have seen Jacobs's face suddenly go blank, and then light up with a foreign intelligence. Must have seen it happen to Brunwick, for that matter. They'd seen their own futures. Must be one thing to know it happened to anonymous D-Class personnel, another to see it happen to someone you knew.
"Don't worry," Advani said to the others. "We'll get out of this somehow." They all knew he was lying, though.
He tried to go to sleep, but Jacobs's body was still wired with adrenaline. He stared at the walls, at the dirt floor, anything to avoid looking at his team.
He was almost eager when the man in the scarf opened the door, just to get it over with.
"Once again, we have the kafir Doctor Bright. He is alive because that amulet steals the life from others and puts him into their bodies. We have let him steal the life of his friend. His own friend, he steals the life from! Now he must die again."
It was the same speech from before. Bright realized that they probably weren't releasing his death in Brunwick's body. It wouldn't look as good to see him fighting back.
This time, the knife traced a line across his head. Fingers dug into Jacobs' frizzy hair roughly and pulled the scalp back. Bright screamed into the gag.
They took their time on him. By the end, he was silently begging them to finish it.
He woke up again. It was much later. He was tied up and gagged again, in position. He looked around, saw Sandler and Lopez. He realized now that there was a pattern to their choices. First was big Brunswick, then guards, Jacobs and Advani. Next it would be Sandler, and then pretty young Lopez. They wanted to build it up. Escalate the "choice" of taking their bodies. They'd taken the "real" men, next it would be the harmless old man and finally the young woman.
Sandler looked broken. Lopez no longer looked scared. She looked angry. Angry at the terrorists, angry at him. He might have been projecting the last. He certainly was pretty angry with himself.
Something nearby caught his eye. Something was scratched into the dirt. It was faint, and it looked atrocious, but he could just read it. "HELP COMING. HOLD OUT."
It had to be fresh, or the terrorists would have trampled it into the dirt.
His heart—Advani's heart—leapt into his throat. If he could just stall. He could still get Sandler and Lopez out of this. Lopez for certain. Just a little longer.
But the door was opening again. Here was the leader of the terrorists, coming in with his lackeys. Bright steeled his mind. He had to let them go to work. The longer he lived, the better their chances of rescue.
"The ghoul Doctor Bright has taken another of his friends! He does not care for anyone but himself. But now he suffers! We will make him regret every second he is alive, and then we will destroy him in the name of Allah!" He waved theatrically to the camera.
One of the men took a bucket and threw it on him. He retched when he realized it was dung. Pig shit, he thought. Where did they even find pigs in Egypt? Didn't they all get killed during the Swine Flu epidemic?
The other man took a knife and began making little cuts on his face. Nothing terribly painful, but it was letting the pig shit seep into the wounds. Not that he expected to live long enough for infection to be a concern, but it was humiliating. Which was, of course, the point.
"We defile him as his unclean soul defiles the bodies of others. We swear undying jihad against all Foundation kafirs!" With that, the man pulled out his sword and held it high.
No, no, no, Bright thought. You're supposed to torture me! This isn't how it's supposed to go!
As the sword began its arc, he comforted himself with the thought that Lopez, at least, would make it.
The rescue came several hours after the sword. The terrorists had just left them alone for the night when the rescue team came in. It wasn't even a battle. It was over in minutes.
Bright was untied, escorted to the evac helicopter, and loaded in. On the way back, one of the agents explained how the Chaos Insurgency had fed Hezb Alkhalifah intelligence about them, down to the location of their van. How they'd gotten their information, and exactly why they'd done it, wasn't yet known. The leading theory was that it was intended to keep the Foundation—and the terrorists—busy while they secured an unknown asset and hightailed it out of dodge.
As they arrived at the secured facility, and were escorted to a debriefing room, he sat down between the two remaining passengers from the van.
"Well, that could have gone better," said Claudia. "Sorry. I got help as quickly as I could." A cigarette seemed to hang in mid-air.
"You did your best," said Bright. "I just wish…"
"I know, Doctor," said Sandler. "I had hoped she'd make it as well."
"I just don't get it," Bright said. "Everyone else they picked, there was an escalation. First big Brunwick, then Jacobs, then Advani. She should have been last."
"You don't get it," Claudia said. "Different culture. To us, sure, the young lady would have been the finale. To them, though…"
Bright stared at Sandler, at his balding head and fringe of white hair, and then down to the shapely young hands he wore. "Of course. The male elder."
"I'm sorry," Sandler said. "I wish it had been the other way."
There was one final execution for Doctor Bright that night. His handlers tried to save him, but he was just too quick.