Blue Jerboa

February 26, 2024

It’s 1960, and Algeria is fighting for its independence as their colonizer –the French–use their land for their own gain in the nuclear arms race. Rafik, a soldier in the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) has been tasked with stopping the test and saving thousands of lives, but will he make it in time?

***

Wiping the sweat from his brow, Rafik Mansouri idly wondered if it was due to nerves or the oppressive Saharan heat. Vainly, he wished his cousin Ayoub were here. He would’ve cracked a joke saying, “The only oppressive force in Algeria is the French.” 

Rafik needed a little humor. It wasn’t every day your commanding officers hand-selected you to infiltrate an enemy’s nuclear testing site. 

An object darted and jumped across his path. With a sharp intake of breath, Rafik scolded his anxious nerves. It was simply a jerboa, a mouse-sized rodent with kangaroo legs and rounded ears. Rafik had spent his life in this desert, surrounded by these creatures. They were not the threat to Rafik’s and thousands of Algerians’ lives. 

Refocusing, Rafik ducked into the next building. On the French army’s CSEM, there were hundreds of buildings, making the barbed wire area a small, protected town. The only reason he’d made it past was his borrowed uniform and counterfeit badge. 

His disguise was working…so far. 

Stepping through the guarded door, he paused, allowing his eyes to adjust to the nauseating yellow interior lights. A 10-foot French flag hung from the low ceiling. Rafik took in the expansive tile foyer with multiple corridors spinning off like scorpion limbs. Signs in French and Arabic indicated that he was finally in the correct spot. 

Behind a flimsy desk sat a rumpled French soldier. He muttered something under his thick mustache and pushed a clipboard in Rafik’s direction. Beneath the date, Saturday, February 13, 1960, Rafik scribbled his fake name on the line. He slid the clipboard back and the Frenchman resumed picking his nails. 

Dusty leather boots clomping, Rafik picked up his pace, angling towards the corridor marked Laboratoire. He was nearly there when a sharp voice behind him shouted, “Arrêt!

Born and bred a soldier, Rafik immediately halted and turned sharply on his heel. 

He expected the disgruntled guard at the door. Instead, marching towards him was a trim young man with copper skin. Flecks of gold and blue in his otherwise plain brown eyes sparked like electricity.

Julien Balkadi—former schoolmate to Rafik and traitor to his country. 

Whispering a prayer to Allah, Rafik hoped Julien wouldn’t recognize him. 

Unlike Julien, whose mixed blood supplied him with a remarkable appearance, Rafik was an average Algerian man: Sun-darkened skin and deep brown eyes like dates. Perhaps his lack of distinguishing features would play to his advantage. 

“Rafik Mansouri?”

Perhaps not. 

Julien blinked and continued. “When did—I thought you were FLN?”

Thousands of synapses fired in Rafik’s brain. Not one of them provided a helpful cover story. Staring dumbly at Julien, Rafik made the only decision that made sense.

He ran. 

Darting down the winding corridor, Rafik had a flashback to the schoolyard. The boys’ football team practiced pass-back drills; Rafik and Julien were partners one day. Rafik kicked too hard and the ball nailed Julien in the groin. The shorter boy doubled over in pain. Teammates howled in laughter, calling Julien rude names. 

“Half breed.” “Bastard.” And worse.

He remembered shoving the other boys aside, yelling at them to leave Julien alone. Knobby knees pressed in the prickly grass, Rafik apologized to Julien, then helped him stand.

To shake off his pursuer, Rafik ducked into an open doorway. A single bulb lit a simple kitchen. At the counter, a French scientist was whistling and cranking a manual can opener as water bubbled on the stovetop. 

A body rocketed into Rafik’s back, tackling him to the floor. Near his ear, Julien cried, “Out! Sound the alarms!” 

He heard the dull thud of shoes running away.

Now everyone would know the nuclear test site had been infiltrated by the Algerian National Liberation Front

But Rafik didn’t have time to focus on that. He was rolling across the floor, trying to gain some traction. The once-scrawny Julien was now a man, much like Rafik, and their physical strength was equally matched; their resolution in their beliefs, too. 

A boot slammed into his chin, and Rafik found himself trapped in a leg lock. “You think you can stop us?” Julien asked. “Today, France will join the world powers in the nuclear arms race!” 

Rafik spat the blood from his mouth, twisting and worming his way out of the leg lock. “Thousands could die! You would sacrifice innocents?” He kneed Julien in the side and jumped to his feet. Hands swept across the countertop, fingers wrapping around the first weapon he could find: the can opener. 

A powerful kick brought Rafik back to the kitchen floor, and Julien scrambled onto Rafik’s back. 

“There’s nothing but desert, you ignorant Algier!” 

With a cry of rage, Rafik wildly swung the can opener. His arm reverberated as it connected, and he heard Julien wail. He twisted and pinned Julien on his back, one hand gripping his throat. A trickle of blood ran from a gash on Julien’s ear where Rafik’s makeshift weapon had connected. 

“Tell that to the people of Reggane. Would you have their blood on your hands?” 

A flash of confusion sparked in Julien’s multi-colored eyes. 

Wait.

Did he not know? 

Confusion passed, replaced by resolve. Julien choked out, “Sacrifices must be made for the good of France. Blue Jerboa will detonate today, and we will—”

Bringing his arm down, Rafik whacked Julien across the face with the can opener. Blood spattered both men’s faces as Rafik pummeled Julien over and over again until his body finally grew still. 

This was no schoolyard tiff; this was war. 

Trembling, Rafik stood, his grip locked around the can opener as it dripped blood onto the floor. His ears were ringing.  He knew he had to flee before he could be caught, or worse, fail in his mission to stop the nuclear bomb. 

Alarms whirred. Then, a voice over the speakers, counting down.

Dix, neuf, huit…

Darting from the kitchen, Rafik scanned the corridor for something. Anything!

…sept, six, cinq…

He ran back the way he’d come. Maybe if he could make it to the detonation site?

…quatre, trois, deux…” 

Silent tears streamed from his face. He’d never make it. 

But still he ran.

The drab, yellow halls faded into a pitch of prickly grass, young Julien near his shoulder.

…un, zéro.

 

As an author, Alexandra Rexford enjoys writing stories with wit and romance, including a dash of danger. In a perfect world, she would spend all her time writing, reading, sipping hot cocoa, and snuggling with her dogs.

 

 

 

Featured Image by Louis Reed.

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