Sticky, chalk-like dust coats the naked man as he lies curled tightly on the cave floor. There is no light, no sound, merely continuous heat from the rock sweating all around him, and the distant plink of water dripping from the calcified ceiling.
With each drop he imagines waves rippling across the unendurable blackness and rasping against his skin: relentless sensations haunting his sanity.
He crawls towards where he knows the bars of the cell to be, finding the bucket of water and drinking sparingly. There is no regularity to when his captors replace it. No way of knowing how long it must last or how much time is passing.
He had howled and wept the first few days here, demanding they listen, offering any ransom. They kept food from him until he became silent. He tried calming himself, but his fear is crippling, stalking him, restless in the desolating dark.
Relieving himself in the soil bucket he returns to the rear of the cave where he can feel the smoothness of the wall against his back.
Something warm and furry brushes against his legs and he flinches, pulling his knees in and holding his ankles. His keening mewl rattles along hidden passages, echoing, haunting and feral.
Something grunts in answer in the darkness. An outline, squat and with rounded shoulders glowing like dust in a shaft of light. The prisoner no longer trusts his mind and holds up a hand to ward off the growing brightness, doubt and terror clouding his senses. His arm is a silhouette without feature against the gathering shape.
The beast takes form, a burst of olive-grey fur surrounding a long snout, the canines curved and hugely terrifying. The baboon’s eyes are brown, warm and filled with curiosity.
Even in his mental anguish, the naked man notices that – though the baboon appears as brightly as if standing beneath the desert sun – he can see nothing else. No light escapes to cast aside the blankness of his prison. His throat is raw with his shrill wailing, and he cringes back against the stone.
The baboon grips a two-headed metal stave in one hand. He advances on the naked man, who cowers and presses further into the wall, gesturing with his other as if stirring a pool of water, searching in the rivers of memory that coalesce on this place here in the heart of the ancient watercourses of the genii carved through the bony chitin of the earth.
A fragmentary image of a man with strange blue eyes, and the naked man moans in tepid outrage. The baboon presses at the moment, like a wound, and follows the liquid thread towards a thin, silvery track like a river in the vastness of the Sahara.
The dust trail of the vehicle ahead lingered in the air, and it was easy to follow behind. The five seekers – two men, two women and a small child of indeterminate gender – clustered in the vehicle with him believed that he would take them to Nouadhibou, and he intended to, but first there would be a reckoning.
They travelled for hours, always roughly northwards, with the clatter and smash of stones on the undercarriage the only sound, and the sun was beginning its descent when the dust source ahead began to near. There was nowhere to hide amidst the rocky desolation of the hamada, and he simply ordered the vehicle to park alongside the stationary Haval.
Its occupant had been sitting inside waiting. Now he stood and walked towards them, surprise and unmistakable anguish on his face.
‘What are you doing here, Oktar?’ he asked, his strange blue eyes bright, even compared to the clarity of the sky.
‘I might ask you the same thing,’ said Oktar Samboa, triumph in his thin smile.
‘You shouldn’t be here. You’ll get us all killed,’ said the man, glancing into the vehicle where the seekers were equally confused and uncertain.
‘They know where the planes are,’ said Samboa, nodding at the seekers. ‘They stumbled on them the first time they tried crossing the desert. Now we’ll see how much your information is worth to Ansar Dine.’
A shimmer, and twelve jihadis set aside their invisibility cloaks. They had walked unnoticed over the nearby dunes. They were black-clad and inscrutable inside their turbans and djellabas. By their bodies and posture, though, they appeared to be young, and they held their weapons nervously.
They began shouting, pushed the blue-eyed man aside and dragged the seekers from the vehicle. The child screamed in terror; the women were sobbing.
Clearly, they were demanding to know who all these people were. Why was he not alone as agreed?
Blue-eyes sought those of Samboa and, even here as the prisoner sees this once more, he struggles to understand the expression on his face. Of grief and loss.
Samboa trembles and shakes, his body prone upon the cave floor, the moment swirling before the gleaming eyes of the baboon. He had felt so certain the jihadis would listen to the seekers and then depart, leaving the blue-eyed man with nothing. Instead he cannot tell who is more panicked: the seekers or the jihadis.
The blue-eyed man began to speak quickly and firmly; he stepped between one jihadi and the tallest of the seeker men. Smiling, he grasped the man by the arm, as if they were old friends, speaking all the while.
‘What are you saying?’ Samboa shouted, willing himself forward as the blue-eyed man’s rims translated loudly.
The jihadis were more insistent, shoving again at the blue-eyed man, pushing one of the women to the ground.
The blue-eyed man put up his hands, continuing to smile warmly.
Samboa was close enough to hear him speaking under the translation. To hear him say, ‘This is Oktar Samboa, a colleague, and these are our guides. You would not expect us to find our way here without the support of the Senegalese military?’ A statement that condemned them all.
Gasping. A moment frozen as the jihadis reacted.
The shooting did not stop, even after one of the seekers managed to climb inside the Haval, hammering on the controls until the vehicle lurched and drove south, back along the track. His legs jammed between the seats and his torso hanging limply out where it dragged in the dust.
‘What did you do?’ shouted Samboa as the jihadis grabbed him, tore his rims from his face and shoved him to the ground. ‘Simon!’ screaming his name. The blue-eyed man looked down at him in sadness before he too was thrown to the dust.
The baboon places his hand close to the face of the naked man, stifling his scream, digging deeper, following the path into the lives of others, seeing shapes flying over the desert, pressing at the horizon and casting shadows against the sky.