29th July 2009 AD, 03:00
Checkpoint Delta, Green Zone, Baghdad
“Private Ackermann here to relieve you, sir!” shouted a voice from below. Sergeant Newton peered over the side of the guard tower and saw the Private staring up at him eagerly. Far too early in the morning, Newton thought. What on Earth does he drink to make him so chirpy?
“Come on up, Ackermann.”
Ackermann’s footsteps up the metal stairs were rhythmic and regular, and the Sergeant halfway drifted into a doze by counting them as the Private walked. Fifty-seven, fifty-eight. Newton opened his eyes just as Ackermann’s foot hit the top step.
“Ready to relieve you, sir!” said Ackermann, saluting.
“As you were, Private,” sighed Newton. “Did you bring the oil?”
“Jolly good. She’s been creaking in the wind a bit,” Newton said, patting the 50-calibre machine gun that looked down over the walls, ready and waiting to meet whatever threat might be awaiting it today.
It hadn’t been fired in two and a half years.
“I’ll sort her out, sir, don’t you worry.”
“Well, I’m gonna hit the sack then,” said Newton.
“Taking command of the watchtower, sir!” He saluted again.
“Yeah. Thanks,” said Newton, giving a half-hearted salute back before making his way, unsteady and irregularly, down the steps again.
Three weeks to go, Newton thought as he sloped back to the mess hall for a dinner that he’d rather fall asleep in than eat. Three weeks until I get out of this place. War wasn’t fun, but at least it was something. There was something to care about, something to make you feel alive. But manning the watchtower, forcing yourself to be on alert for a threat that may never come, while all the while you baked in the shade and the whistling wind echoed in your ears… It was the boredom. Nobody ever trained you for the boredom.
Shahryar’s Palace, on the banks of the Tigris
Dearest Scheherazade, she read. She slumped down onto the bed as her eyes scanned the mood of the letter that had been left for her.
This great Empire of ours lies crumbling now, a mere reflection of the wonder we knew in our youth. And so it has come to the point that I must leave with it, lest I be stuck behind, forever a shadow of what I was. No, my love, do not ask where I have gone. One day, when my Empire is strong again, I may return to tell you the tale – or I may be gone forever. From this early point in our future, I cannot see what may become with any clarity.
Though my essence lay in Earthly power, prone to ebb and flow with triumph and defeat, yours does not. So many stories you did learn and tell in days of old, and many more since I granted you your freedom, and so many more will continue to flow through your beautiful mind until the end of time. For stories are immortal, only gathering pace with time, never diminishing as the Empire has.
Thus, though what remains of the Empire must be left to our eldest son to administer, this palace I leave solely to you. May you hear visitors from the far corners of the Earth come to share their tales with you, and may you in turn share those stories with others; educate them, inspire them, transfix them as you did to me all those years ago.
Scheherazade threw herself backwards onto the bed, letting the letter float slowly to the floor. She wept for days.
29th July 2009 AD, 04:13
Checkpoint Delta, Green Zone, Baghdad
The chanted song echoed out from the mosques through the streets of Baghdad, calling the faithful to prayer. Atop the watchtower, Private Ackermann scowled at the night. He was a light sleeper, and the pre-dawn prayers had woken him every day until he was assigned the early morning watch. Then it was the evening prayers that stopped him getting to sleep at night. In self-defence he’d taken up heavy coffee-drinking and just blazed through it all, not sleeping at all some nights.
Crazy fucking religion, he thought. Nobody gets any rest in this city.
Prayers ended, and people started drifting out into the streets. A few minutes later, a car drove by and parked next to the watchtower on the other side of the wall. Ackermann aimed the spotlight at the driver as he stepped out.
“Hey you!” Ackermann shouted. “You can’t park there! Read the signs!”
The driver looked up, one arm giving a kind of half-shrug while the other shielded his eyes against the spotlight.
“Fuck,” muttered Ackermann. “Uh, Tawaquf! Ia, er… hunaka… Shit, I can’t– Shit, he’s running!”
Ackermann grabbed his radio. “Central, Checkpoint Delta. Central, Checkpoint Delta. Suspicious activity outside the wall. Suspect has–”
But he would say no more. The force and the fire of the car’s explosion set off shaped charges along the wall, placed earlier that morning as Sergeant Newton had been blundering dreamily about the top of the tower. The charges blew the wall to pieces, engulfing the watchtower beyond it in a hell of burning and twisted metal. Private Ackermann’s world turned blinding white, then there was the briefest sensation of falling, and he lay still on the tarmac.
29th July 2009 AD, 04:16
Shahryar’s Palace (Mythic Earth)
The former Queen rolled over in her sleep, and groaned.
“Scheherazade, wake up.”
She rolled back again and blinked her eyes open. In the flickering oil-light, all she could see was a shadow looming over her.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me, you fool. Shahryar.”
“Shahryar?” Scheherazade sat up and flung her arms around his neck. “But you… you said you were going away! How is it that you are back so soon?”
“Oh, my dear Scheherazade,” sighed the once-King of Persia. “I am afraid it is not soon.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s been rather a long time since you fell asleep. Two thousand years.”
“Two thousand years?”
“I’m sorry. It’s complicated, and I don’t have much time to explain. We’re under attack, but our old Empire is long-gone. Only this palace remains, but it’s not quite on Earth anymore–”
“Not quite on Earth?”
“That’s complicated too. I’m sending some people to help you. Now get dressed, and head to the throne room as quickly as you can. I have to go–”
“You have to go again? Why can’t you just stay here and explain what’s going on?”
“I will, my love, before the week is out. I promise.” And with that, he vanished.
Scheherazade waved her hand though the space he had occupied, and met no resistance.
“Shahryar?” she called out. There there was no reply.
She dressed quickly, finding her clothes hanging just as they had the previous night. The room looked the same, smelt the same, everything felt the same. It couldn’t really have been two thousand years. That’s ridiculous. But then she thought of some of the thousand and one stories she had told her husband all those years ago, and began to wonder. Isn’t it?
The servants who passed her on her way to the throne room all looked the same, acted the same. Did they know how much time had passed, or had they awoken normally that morning?
Scheherazade reached the throne room, and sat down gently in her throne to the side of and slightly behind Shahryar’s. She had still never sat in her husband’s, even though he had supposedly given the palace to her two – or two thousand and two – years ago.
Well then, she thought. What am I supposed to do sitting here?
And then, as if someone was paying attention to her thoughts, it happened. Everything happened, all at once, in her head or outside, she could not tell.
The palace being built.
The king taking his first wife, who cheated on him.
The king’s madness, his search, his hundred nights of passion, the hundred grisly mornings when the girls’ blood was shed.
Scheherazade offering herself to the king.
The thousand and one stories, one completed each night as she began the next.
Her freedom, her life with the king, their children.
The king’s disappearance, and Scheherazade’s life afterward.
The fall of the great Persian Empire, and the rise of Islam.
The Mongols and the Ottomans, the Arabs and the British.
The Iraq of King Faisal and the Iraq of Saddam Hussein.
The Gulf War and the War on Terror.
The Green Zone, and the bomb which blew apart its walls…
As suddenly as it had started, it stopped again. Scheherazade sat quivering in her throne, feeling every day of two thousand years old.
She slowly opened her eyes, dreading what she might see – but she saw her own palace, just as it always was. And in the centre of the room, five figures who looked just as confused as she was.
Scheherazade stood, hoping she didn’t come across as anywhere near as shaken up as she felt.
“Greetings, strangers,” she said, “and welcome to the Court of Scheherazade.”