Important Note: I'm a loyal American. I don't admire the enemies of my country; but I do respect them, even knowing they wouldn't return the favor. I believe some of their grievances against the U.S. are legitimate. And while I'm sure some of our enemies are no better than thugs, I think the leaders are brave men, sincere in their beliefs, who perceive themselves as being in the right.

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He hated this plan, hated it with a passion. He hadn't conceived it. In all his prayers, he included a plea that he'd never have to carry it out.

But now the moment of reckoning had come. Attackers were storming the house, bellowing in at least three languages, "Throw down your weapons! Come out with your hands up!"

The men inside had jumped to their feet, readying their guns--all but the one who had a special role to play. He was sitting very still, composing himself. There was no hint of fear in his eyes.

Their leader stood rigid. I can't do this. I can't!

Six faces were turned toward him. One of his men hissed, "Get moving. Go!"

I give the orders! And I'm not leaving. This plan is an abomination.

He tried to say that aloud, but no words came.

All right, I'll go. Give yourselves up, just give yourselves up. Insist I wasn't here.

Those words wouldn't come out either. He could only make a small, feeble sound, midway between a choke and a sob.

They all knew what duty required.

"The laptop," someone reminded him.

He managed a jerky nod. Thrust his gun into his belt, and picked up the all-important computer. I do this to save the laptop, not myself...no, the laptop and the knowledge in my head. But not to save my life, not for my own sake.

He found his voice at last and said hoarsely, "May God watch over you."

"May God watch over you too," came six low replies. He could barely hear them over the pounding on the door.

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Clutching the laptop, he raced down the stairs to the basement. Made his way--unerringly, dark as it was--to the well-hidden trapdoor. Precious seconds were lost while he searched for the flashlight he knew was there, then gritted his teeth and resolved to make do without it.

As he slipped through the trapdoor, he heard the volley of shots. He felt the impact of every one, not in his strong young body, but in his soul.

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Somehow, without dropping the laptop, he inched his way down the first few rungs of a ladder he couldn't see. Then he jumped the remaining distance to the floor of the closet-sized room below. He laid the computer down carefully, climbed back up, and descended again--this time closing the trapdoor behind him.

Now in pitch darkness, he recovered the laptop and located the tunnel entrance. Stay calm, he told himself. Think of nothing but moving quickly and efficiently.

The tunnel was rough but serviceable, its ceiling just high enough to allow him to stand upright. It was so narrow that two men could not have walked abreast.

Running was out of the question. He let his free hand brush against the earthen wall--a feather-light touch--as he moved along it.

With his eyes closed. Trying to calm himself by pretending that the darkness was his own choice, that he could open them at any time and be able to see.

I can't breathe. There's no air, I'm going to die in here...

No light, no air. Is this how it feels to be buried alive?

Calm down! I supervised the construction of this tunnel. There are ventilation shafts. Just breathe normally, stop gulping.

What a small thing a flashlight is.

And the lack of one can be so huge.

The enemy may have found and blocked the shafts...

Impossible. We would have spotted that kind of activity. The air isn't great, but it's adequate--certainly enough for one man. Stay calm, breathe normally...think about something else. Keep putting one foot in front of the other, and think about something else.

Something else. Think about something else.

But he refused to dwell on the horror overhead. The carnage that had bought him this chance to escape.

He thought instead, grimly, of the dozen other safehouses that might also be under attack. No one knew how many computers and sensitive documents had been lost during the war, left behind in hasty evacuations. There was no way to assess the security breaches. But if this location was compromised, the damage went beyond his worst fears.

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He walked into a wall. The end of the tunnel.

Stifling a gasp, he fought down panic and reminded himself that he knew exactly where he was. Under a house a block away from the one he'd left.

He stood very still, listening for sounds from above.

Nothing.

He tried to calm his pounding heart.

This address had never been entered into a computer, never appeared in a printout. If those were the sources of the enemy's information, he was safe. If, on the other hand, he'd been betrayed...

He retreated a few steps into the tunnel, used his hands to dig up a section of its loose-packed dirt floor, and buried the laptop. Might not do any good--can't do a neat job without being able to see. But at least I tried.

Then he made his way back to the tunnel end and groped for the ladder, a twin to the one he'd descended. He was up it in an instant, greedy for a deep breath of the air admitted by the ill-fitting trapdoor.

But...who or what might lurk beyond that door?

Only one way to find out.

Allowing himself no time for second thoughts, he braced his hands against it and shoved it up.

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No lurkers. No booby traps. Just a cold, dark basement.

He collapsed on the floor and lay panting for what might have been ten minutes. The house above was quiet--hopefully empty, as it was supposed to be. There was plenty of noise outside, but it was well down the street. He could picture the neighbors near his violated safehouse, huddled in their dingy homes, hoping the police wouldn't turn on them.

At last he got to his feet, offering a prayer of thanks for having made it as far as he had. Aided by faint moonlight from a window near the ceiling, he returned to the tunnel--leaving the trapdoor open--and retrieved his laptop.

How to get it up the ladder? After a moment's deliberation, he stripped his shirt off and used it to lash the computer to his back, leaving both hands free to grasp the rungs.

Mission accomplished. Shivering, he hurried to reclaim the wrinkled shirt. He took the precaution of hiding the laptop yet again in that cluttered basement while he checked out the house.

When he was sure he was alone, he went back for it.

Then he stepped outside...and stood transfixed.

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The cluster of police vehicles was still there.

At a safe distance. They posed no immediate threat.

But seeing them, seeing the encircled house from the outside, hit him like a blow to the solar plexus. His knees buckled, and he had to lean against the wall.

They'll be searching the place now. Prisoners have probably been taken away--wounded or not. There's no rush about the dead...

He closed his eyes, and saw, one by one, the faces of his friends. Looking as he'd last seen them, grim and determined.

He'd never see those men's smiles again. Living or dead, they were lost to him.

Even if he hadn't believed in the promise of Paradise, he would have regarded the dead as the lucky ones.

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He finally tore himself away. The back-up house had served him well, but he couldn't risk staying so near the site of the raid. Unremarkable though his appearance was, some neighborhood residents might remember his face and spot him if he was still around in the morning.

Hurrying through the dark streets, he kept close to the walls, shivering in his light clothing. It took him only a half hour to find shelter--in a brothel.

Fortunately, he had enough cash in his pockets to pay for an all-nighter. To avoid suspicion, he did what men normally do in such places. But he took no joy in it.

He slept not at all. When he thought he might, he lay with an arm draped over not his female companion, but his laptop.

The thought of computers almost brought a smile to his face. If there'd been raids on as many safehouses as he feared, it was a blow to the organization, but not an unmitigated disaster. The computers and documents in those houses did contain sensitive information. But it was mixed with an equal amount of disinformation. Garbage. He was especially proud of his lists of names and phone numbers of supposed operatives--many of them picked at random from phone books. The enemy would go nuts!

They'd find so much data, real and bogus, that they'd never realize there should have been more. All the most crucial records were kept in one or both of two places: his laptop, his brain.

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He was up and dressed before dawn, looking for--and finding--a power strip. He hooked up the laptop, and accessed an e-mail account whose password was known to only three men.

His eyes misted over.

No, don't give in. Don't fall apart now!

I won't have to tell them about the raid. Something like that, in a city this size, can't be hushed up. Just let them know I'm alive and free, and saved the laptop.

He blinked fiercely to clear his eyes. Then he typed, in his own language:

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My brothers,

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No.

He deleted that. Thought for a minute...and batted out an e-mail in the language of the principal enemy, which he didn't bother to encrypt.

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Hi Folks,

Wanted to let you know I'm taking off for spring break. Dunno where I'm going yet. Don't worry, I'll have my term paper notes with me! Ha ha. You'll hear from me when I need money, like always.

Love and all that mushy stuff,

Zane

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He did not, of course, send it. Anything sent might be intercepted. He saved it in the Drafts folder and logged out. The others would access the account, read his "draft," and reply in the same way.

He sat there, shaking.

I hope I hear from them soon. I need to hear from them!

Even if all they said was, "Enjoy spring break," he needed their moral support. Needed that sense of contact with the men who knew what he was going through--or would know, when they heard the publicly announced result of the raid.

The men who'd concocted that loathsome plan.

For the first time, he let himself visualize what had happened. The enemy bursting into the safehouse...just in time to see his lieutenants gun down one of their own. The shooters had probably been executed on the spot.

Had to be done. It makes me want to puke now, and it will haunt me forever, but it had to be done. They had no way of knowing how many of us were in that house. But the identities of some of the others would have told them I'd almost certainly been there, and couldn't have gotten far. Now they're sure they saw my men kill me--so I couldn't be tortured for information, and my death wouldn't be direct suicide, a sin in the eyes of God. No one will be searching for me.

The man who was killed only resembles me slightly. But that should be enough. They have, what, one or two grainy photos? And I'm so ordinary-looking!

Besides, when that double agent told us he'd been paid to get a sample of my DNA last year, it was my comrade's we gave him.

If he's not dead, if he somehow survives, he'll "admit" to being me. And they'll be after information he doesn't have...

Don't think about what they'll do to him. Don't!

Just make sure his sacrifice wasn't for nothing.

He rose decisively, unplugged the computer, and went to plant a kiss on the forehead of the still-sleeping hooker with whom he'd spent the night.

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Ten minutes later, the ordinary-looking man who was anything but ordinary was back on the street. Toting his laptop.

He really didn't know where he was going.

But God would show him the way.

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The End

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Author's Afterword: This is a "what-if" story written April 5-8, 2002, speculating that the U.S. might not have gotten the real Abu Zubaydah. Parts of it don't jibe with details that were later published, but the basic idea still works.