Through Darkest Europe: New Excerpt
From the modern master of alternate history and New York Times bestselling author Harry Turtledove, Through Darkest Europe envisions a world dominated by a prosperous and democratic Middle East―and under threat from the world’s worst trouble spot.
Senior investigator Khalid al-Zarzisi is a modern man, a product of the unsurpassed educational systems of North Africa and the Middle East. Liberal, tolerant, and above all rich, the countries and cultures of North Africa and the Middle East have dominated the globe for centuries, from the Far East to the young nations of the Sunset Lands.
But one region has festered for decades: Europe, whose despots and monarchs can barely contain the simmering anger of their people. From Ireland to Scandinavia, Italy to Spain, European fundamentalists have carried out assassinations, hijackings, and bombings on their own soil and elsewhere. Extremist fundamentalist leaders have begun calling for a “crusade”, an obscure term from the mists of European history.
Now Khalid has been sent to Rome, ground zero of backwater discontent. He and his partner Dawud have been tasked with figuring out how to protect the tinpot Grand Duke, the impoverished Pope, and the overall status quo, before European instability starts overflowing into the First World.
Then the bombs start to go off.
Khalid al-Zarzisi had the window seat as the airliner flew from Tunis to Rome. The senior investigator peered down at the blue, blue water of the Mediterranean. When he studied at the madrasa in Cairo, one of his instructors said Homer had a special word for that special color. But he’d been out of the madrasa more than twenty years now. Homer’s word was on the tip of his tongue, but it didn’t want to come off. It was … It was … Khalid muttered in frustration.
Then he found it. “Wine-dark!” he blurted, and felt better.
“Huh? What’s that?” his partner asked. Dawud ibn Musa looked like an unmade bed, as usual. His robe was wrinkled. His keffiyeh sat on his head at an angle no doubt meant to be jaunty but in fact sloppy. He should have taken time to shave, too. It was an early-morning flight, but al-Zarzisi had.
“The wine-dark sea,” Khalid said. The whole phrase made him even happier than the word had.
“Huh,” Dawud repeated. He leaned forward and to his left so he could see out past Khalid to the Middle Sea. Being junior to Khalid—and being a Jew besides—he always got the middle, where his boss sat by the window or on the aisle. He looked out for a few seconds, then shrugged broad shoulders. “Just looks like water to me.”
“You don’t have a poet’s soul,” Khalid said.
“Oh, yeah? And you do?” Dawud retorted. Khalid prudently didn’t answer that. A senior investigator needed a poet’s soul the way a camel needed a fountain pen.
A stewardess pushed a tray of refreshments down the aisle. Her robe stopped a palm’s breadth above her knees. A perky cap did a token job of covering her hair. “Sherbet? A fizz? Wine? Spirits?” she asked, first in the classical Arabic educated men and women all over the world understood, then in the Maghrib’s Berber-flavored dialect, and, finally, in Italian.
“Wine,” Dawud ibn Musa said, and then again, in case she hadn’t heard: “Wine!”
“Yes, sir,” she said. “Three dinars, please.” From somewhere inside his robe, he pulled out a rumpled five-dinar note. The stewardess’ smile looked pasted on as she gave him his change. It brightened again when her eyes lit on Khalid. “Anything to drink, for you, sir?”
“I’ll take one of those little bottles of wine, too,” he said. He had exact change ready when she handed it to him. She sent Dawud a look that said See? He ignored it. He’d been ignoring looks like that for as long as he’d worked with Khalid, and probably for a lot longer than that.
Dawud poured his wine into the plastic glass that came with it. He looked at it, then leaned left and forward again to peer at the Mediterranean. He shook his head. “They aren’t the same color.”
Khalid unscrewed the cap on his own bottle of wine. As he poured it, he answered, “I don’t think they’re supposed to be. Homer meant the sea was as dark as wine, that’s all.”
Maybe he was right. Maybe he was wrong. It had been a long time since he graduated from the madrasa. He sipped the wine: a thoroughly ordinary red from somewhere outside of Algiers. Yes, the Qur’an said you weren’t supposed to drink alcohol. Khalid worried about that no more than most Muslims had for centuries. If you wanted to drink, you drank. If you didn’t, no one would grab you, ram a funnel down your throat, and pour wine into you.
Some people Khalid knew enjoyed drinking more because it was haram—forbidden. He glanced over at Dawud. Jews could drink alcohol as they pleased. His partner’s glass was already empty. Dawud didn’t seem to miss the extra fillip.
Christians could drink as they pleased, too. Back in Khalid’s father’s day, whenever you saw a Christian in a movie, he’d be lying dead drunk in a gutter. Directors didn’t do that so much any more. It was … what did high-minded people call it? Annoyed at himself, Khalid groped for a word again.
This time, he found it without having to shout it out loud. Insensitive, that was what they said. He snorted softly. You couldn’t offend anybody these days. Christians, blacks, Eskimos … They all started screaming their heads off. And the Eskimos were insisting that you call them Inuit.
He snorted again. He wasn’t worried about Eskimos, even under the name they’d decided they liked better. Christians, sadly, were a different story. His eyes flicked this way and that. About a third of the passengers on this flight were Christians. Instead of the robes and keffiyehs that were standard for well-dressed men from Cairo to Tangier, from New Damascus to Seattle in the Sunset Lands across the Western Ocean, from Shanghai to Jakarta to Delhi—yes, and from Rome to London, too—they stubbornly clung to their short tunics and tight trousers.
And the women … Khalid al-Zarzisi sighed. Their tunics were baggy, so as not to display the bustline, and had sleeves that reached their wrists. Similarly, skirts dragged the ground. A devout Christian woman was more dismayed to show her bare ankle than a worldly Muslim woman would have been to get surprised naked. Not all Muslim women were so very worldly, nor all Christians so very devout. Altogether, though … Altogether, what is one to do with such people? Khalid wondered.
Dawud produced a cigar and stared at it longingly. “No smoking on this flight, sir,” the stewardess said, her voice starchy with disapproval.
“Yes, yes. I was just reminding myself I still have it.” Dawud put it away with the air of a man saying farewell to a love lost forever—or at least until he could light up again.
“Those things aren’t good for you, you know,” Khalid remarked.
“I do know that, as a matter of fact. Everyone says it so often, I suppose it must be true,” his partner answered. “What I didn’t know was that someone told you you were my mother.”
Ears burning, Khalid subsided. To his relief, the pilot announced that they were starting their descent into Rome then. The brassy, amplified voice booming out of speakers made the silence between the two investigators seem less oppressive. Khalid hoped it did, anyhow.
He peered out the window as the airliner came in for a landing. Rome had been a great city once. Monuments from ancient days still poked out from the houses and shops and businesses surrounding them. The ancient Romans hadn’t been Muslims, of course. Till late in their history, they hadn’t been Christians, either. Some people—even some otherwise cultured people—still thought of everything before Muhammad’s day as part of the Jahiliyah, the time of ignorance. How anyone could look at the remains of the Colosseum and reckon the Romans ignorant was beyond Khalid. You had to keep a sense of history, a sense of proportion. Didn’t you?
The airliner bounced once when the landing gear hit the runway. A Christian woman sitting on the other side of the aisle from Khalid and Dawud crossed herself in gratitude that they’d made it. Khalid didn’t like open displays of piety. They made him nervous. He had his reasons, too, but he doubted any of them would have made sense to the Christian woman.
Along with everybody else, he and Dawud filed off the airplane. Signs inside the airport were in Arabic and, in the blocky, backwards-running characters of the Roman alphabet, in Italian. He followed them to baggage claim. There he stood and waited … and waited … and waited. He began to fume.
Dawud was fuming, too—literally. As soon as he’d got inside, he’d lit up that cigar. Now he puffed happy clouds of smoke. Muslims and Christians had proved equally fond of the weed from the Sunset Lands. Several Christian women smoked pipes. Khalid thought that made them look even more out of touch with the main currents of the world than they would have otherwise, but they doubtless cared not an olive pit for his opinion.
After much too long, the baggage carousel started spinning. One by one, bags trickled out. “I know we’re on the wrong side of the Mediterranean,” Khalid grumbled, “but this shouldn’t happen anywhere.”
“I’ve got mine,” Dawud said, grabbing his suitcase as it came by. He kept an eye on it once he had it; Italians had earned their reputation as a light-fingered lot.
More and more bags emerged from behind the scenes, but not Khalid’s. He swore under his breath. He and his partner had checked their suitcases in Tunis at exactly the same time. They would have gone into the airplane together. Why hadn’t they come out together, dammit?
Had one of those light-fingered Italians lifted his bag before it got to the carousel? That would be just his luck. He was growing more and more glumly sure of it when the suitcase bounced out. “About time!” he exclaimed.
They went on to customs. “Passports, please,” the inspector said in a bored voice. But the boredom fell away when he got a look at the documents. His bushy eyebrows jumped up toward the edge of his olive-green uniform keffiyeh. “Oh! You’re them!”
“That’s right,” Khalid said. Nobody’d told him the customs officials on this side of the Mediterranean knew he and Dawud were coming. Because nobody in Tunis had told him, he’d assumed these Italian officials wouldn’t know. Which only went to show what assumptions were worth.
The customs official stamped his passport. Then the man brought the rubber stamp down, much harder, on Dawud ibn Musa’s. He shoved the passport back at Dawud. “Nobody said you’d be a…” His voice trailed off, not quite soon enough.
“Yes?” Dawud said blandly.
“Nothing,” the customs man said. “Go on. You’re clear. Just go.” He made a noise down deep in his throat, but he didn’t—quite—spit on the concrete floor.
Whistling a tune that had been popular the year before, Dawud went. Now, somehow, the angle at which he wore his keffiyeh did look jaunty, not sloppy. Or maybe that was Khalid’s imagination.
He hurried to catch up with his partner. “I’m sorry you had to go through that,” he said.
“If you worry about every single idiot and asshole in the world, you’ll go crazy,” Dawud answered. “So I don’t.”
But he did, as Khalid knew from experience. He just didn’t let it show. Even in Muslim countries, Jews didn’t always have it easy. They had to pay extra taxes. Those were only token fees most places these days, but they were there. And, even in this tolerant age, if a Jew and an equally qualified Muslim were up for the same job, the Muslim would land it nine times out of ten. Plenty of Muslims still looked down their noses at Jews for refusing to accept Muhammad as the Prophet of God. The saying was that a Jew had to be twice as good as a Muslim to get half as far.
Every bit of that was true. All the same, Khalid couldn’t think of any Muslim emirate or sultanate or republic where mobs rampaged through the streets murdering every Jew they could catch. Christians, by contrast, blamed the Jews for killing Christ. That might have happened almost two thousand years ago now, but their hatred was as fresh and fiery as if it were yesterday morning. Even when they weren’t rioting, they had no use for Jews. They especially had no use for Jews in positions of authority.
“I’ll tell you what really pissed off the customs man,” Khalid said. “He knew you were good, that’s what.”
“Screw him—not that any woman in her right mind would want to,” Dawud said. Yes, the Italian bigot had got under his skin.
They were going to have to work with more Italians. They would have to work with other Western Europeans, too. Khalid al-Zarzisi hoped they wouldn’t have any problems. He shook his head. No—he hoped the problems they were bound to have wouldn’t be too big.
* * *
Once they cleared customs, they could go out to the meeting area. A blue-eyed man with a neatly trimmed sandy beard held up a cardboard square with Khalid’s name written on it in Arabic and Roman letters. When Khalid and Dawud came up to him, he greeted them in musically accented classical Arabic: “Peace be with you, gentlemen. I am Major Giacomo Badoglio, of Grand Duke Cosimo’s Ministry of Information.” He displayed an identity card with his photograph, then almost shyly added, “Please forgive my bad Arabic.”
Khalid had seen a copy of that same photograph in Tunis. It matched the man holding it. “And to you also peace,” the senior investigator replied. Then, haltingly, he switched to Major Badoglio’s language: “Your Arabic are—uh, is—better than my Italian, to believe me.”
Badoglio’s eyebrows jumped. “You’ve learned some, anyhow. That’s more than most people from the south coast would do.” He stuck to Arabic; aside from the accent, he spoke it well, even if he was modest about it. He bobbed his head to Dawud ibn Musa. “I’m sorry—I wasn’t given your name.”
“Of course not. You were given your own,” Dawud replied. Major Badoglio blinked. After a moment, Dawud relented and told him who he was, sticking to Arabic while he did it. Khalid knew Dawud spoke fluent Italian—far more fluent than his own. Not letting Badoglio know that might prove useful, so Dawud didn’t. A lot of men wouldn’t have been able to resist the temptation to show off.
If the prospect of working with a Jew bothered Major Badoglio, he didn’t let on. All he said was, “Come with me, both of you. I’ll take you to the Ministry, and then to your hotel.”
He had a car and driver waiting outside. The car was a little gray Garuda, from the Sultanate of Delhi. Only thick-rimmed spectacles and a false mustache could have made it more anonymous. The driver … The driver scared the piss out of Khalid. He wasn’t very tall, but he had wide shoulders, scarred hands, blunt features, and eyes as dark and opaque and deadly as a cobra’s. If he wasn’t a hired killer, he could have played one in the movies.
He drove like a hired killer, too—if the killer also intended to murder himself. Traffic in Tunis was frantic. Traffic in Rome … The large majority of people here were Christians, of course, and they drove as if they were so sure of heaven that they didn’t care whether they died right this minute. Little cars, motorcycles and scooters, bicycles: they all dodged one another, and pedestrians, and the massive, snorting trucks that kept Rome fed and supplied. Everyone who had a horn leaned on it. Everyone who didn’t yelled instead.
After one of the longest hours Khalid had ever lived through, the Garuda pulled up in front of the Ministry of Information: a large, massive pile of reinforced concrete that conveniently stood between Saint Peter’s and Rome’s Aquinas Seminary, the mother of all such places. “Well,” Dawud said. “That was fun.”
Concrete barriers made sure no automobile could jump up onto the curb and set off a big bomb right in front of the building. Fanatics had done that—and worse—here and there in Europe these past twenty years, trying to weaken and destabilize governments that favored friendly relations with the rest of the world.
That was why Khalid and Dawud had crossed the Mediterranean. The Maghrib didn’t want the Grand Duchy destabilized. The first thing a new, hard-line regime in Italy would do was start making noise about who ought to own Sicily and Malta. The next thing … The Sultan, the Wazir, and the Wazir’s cabinet didn’t want to find out what the next thing was.
The barriers had gaps between them. People did need to get by. Somebody determined might squeeze a motor scooter—and as much in the way of explosives as a scooter could carry—through one of those gaps. The guards at the top of the steep marble stairway carried Persian assault rifles. They looked very alert. They needed to. Their lives were on the line, and they had to know it.
Major Badoglio climbed the stairs with Khalid and Dawud. The driver took the little gray Garuda wherever he took it and did whatever he did afterwards. He was only an underling, the kind of person his superiors forgot as soon as he’d done whatever they needed from him.
At the top of the stairs, one of the guards inspected with meticulous care the major’s identity card, and those of the two Maghribis. At last, reluctantly, as if afraid he might be missing something, he nodded and said, “Pass on.”
Another guard opened the door for the newcomers. He didn’t have to tug very hard, but the door must have worked on uncommonly smooth hinges. It was three times as thick as Khalid would have expected, and the edge had the dull sheen of steel.
“You take security seriously,” al-Zarzisi remarked.
“My dear sir! We would be in a sorry state if we didn’t,” Major Badoglio said. “I know you have problems on your side of the sea. Believe me, I do. But, meaning no disrespect, ours are worse.”
“Yes. I know.” Khalid started ticking them off on his fingers: “Too many young people. Not enough jobs. Not enough money. Not enough hope. And all your preachers pouring gasoline on the fire with this talk of a new crusade.”
“You will understand, Inspector—I am a Christian. I am proud to be a Christian,” Badoglio said. “But those people…” He shook his head. “This is not what Jesus preached. Not what I understand Him to have preached, anyhow.”
“‘I came not to send peace, but a sword,’” Dawud ibn Musa quoted.
Major Badoglio winced. Then he sent Dawud a look that mingled surprise and respect. For a moment, Khalid didn’t understand what was going on. Then, suddenly, he did. Dawud had quoted a saying of Christ’s that contradicted what the Italian security man thought about Him. Khalid was surprised, too. Dawud was a man of parts, but Khalid hadn’t known he could spout sayings from the Christians’ part of the Bible.
Stiffly, Badoglio said, “People can quote out of context from the Qur’an, too.”
“Oh, no doubt.” Dawud stayed polite, as he commonly did. Khalid nodded agreement. The Muslims who still denied the possibility of evolution did exactly that. So did the handful of Muslims who still denied that the Earth went around the Sun.
But that wasn’t the point. The point was that the people who quoted the Qur’an out of context did so to make an argument. The people who quoted the Christians’ part of the Bible out of context did so to inspire fanatics to martyr themselves. That was what they had in mind—and, all too often, what they got.
“Well,” Khalid said, breaking the awkward silence that followed Dawud’s deadpan, perhaps too-polite, agreement, “let’s see what you’ve got here.”
“I’ll be glad to show you.” Major Badoglio sounded perhaps too eager. “Come with me, gentlemen, please.” He hurried down the corridor. Khalid and Dawud followed. Khalid smiled at Dawud. The Jew soberly looked back. Maybe he didn’t find any of what had just happened amusing. But Khalid had known Dawud a long time. His guess was that the Jew did, but that he wouldn’t let his own face know, let alone anyone else.
* * *
Copyright © 2018 Harry Turtledove.