A man and a woman stand beside the steaming remains of a desert green GAZ old enough to have seen Korea, their shoulders slumped into the universal posture of futility.
"It's fucked?" asks the woman, her eyes on a raggedy vulture in the searing blue sky above them.
"It's fucked," the man responds, oil stained rag held listlessly between grease-stained fingers.
She tosses him a radio; he makes a call to Kabul some three hundred miles to their southeast while she unloads two packs large enough for ski poles. When she's finished she wipes her face and leaves a long smear on one of the windows that dries in seconds. "Hotter than the inside of the devil's asshole out here."
The man lifts his finger off the send button before he's told to repeat his last. "Don't think about it."
"Easy for you to say," she grunts, "you're not the one wearing a full-body garbage bag. When's our pick up?"
"Four hours, minimum. Unless something better comes along."
"Improvise, adapt, and overcome. Right?"
"That's Marines," she snorts, "You mean: stand around bitching until resupply. See?" She points, in the face of his beleaguered doubt, to a wall of dust kicked up on the southern horizon. "Works like a charm."
Resupply comes in the form of a rust red and peeled paint white Nissan Patrol which the woman moves to flag down a heartbeat before the man lowers her arm. Its occupant does not glance at her; to the man, he says, "Peace be upon you," with a welcoming smile.
"Peace," the man replies.
Ahmad Sayd was surprised to find them on this backroad up to Mazar-i-Sharif, he tells them. Most travellers take the winding valley through Sulgara. Few cross the mountains. You need a good vehicle with good tires and 4-wheel drive--if you break down, there's nobody up there but the wolves and the Russians. Most unusual to find himself driving in anyone else's tracks, let alone several.
With his dyed-black hair and eyes that could be Tajik, Ahmad does not question the man's accented Pashto. He does not question the man's severe disfigurement nor his 'sister's' reticence. Ahmad smoothly switches to Russian for both of them. "Relatives? Of course, of course, but if you have the time, you should visit Balkh. It's a short way out of the city. Not only the Green Mosque, but the ruins of old Bactria. You find them here and there this far north but those stand as large as Balkh itself. Something to tell your children about, before the Soviets bomb it to rubble."
The woman bobs her head in time with Farhad Darya hissing intermittently across pirate radio; if she and the man were alone he would have joined her. She ignores their conversation; Ahmad ignores her picking her teeth beneath her veil.
The dirt road narrows; begins to zig and zag murderously as it climbs. Sand turns to baked brown dust. Ahmad clips corners with practiced ease while he rides a clutch ground down so finely it could cross the blood-brain barrier. The man harps on the imaginary failings of imaginary wives while the woman watches the scenery.
Both fall silent at the sight of a side road rutted by thin ATV tracks.
"You're lucky I came across you, my friends," Ahmad is saying, "There is a Soviet checkpoint at the pass and they let no one past they do not know."
"No one?" the man confirms with a frown.
"Not a soul." Ahmad beams at his own joke; at the corruption of dushman that carries the same meaning. "Don't worry: mujahid seldom travel with their sisters."
The woman kicks the driver's seat, hard. The jolt nearly sends the Patrol spiralling into the brink; the man catches the steering wheel with one reproachful eyebrow raised.
"No mujahid here," she says, in the time it takes her to produce a pistol, cocked and loaded.
"You don't have to do this," Ahmad pleads for the third time that hour, as they follow what he swears is the only side road through the mountains from here. Nobody lives here anymore. Not since the invasion. It turns into a treacherous path that must be climbed on foot--hand over hand, in places.
The woman has shed her outer layer and is using it to towel her short hair dry. She's swapped sandals for boots; the man scratches what passes for a beard. "Take my car. Leave me here. It can be like it never happened."
"Just the one town?" The man asks as a smattering of earth-brick buildings wind into view, fire-stained and mortar-pocked. He directs Ahmad to pull over. He disembarks; picks his way methodically through each with a worn matte Sig Sauer. The woman moves to join him--on second thought, she takes the keys. On third thought she rolls down the window.
They find nothing of note in the hazy afternoon stillness. No food, no valuables, not even corpses. A shiny old mutt rises to follow them aimlessly, panting.
All three return to the Nissan empty-handed. The woman breaks open their packs, paws through a side pouch past magazines to find a canteen. Drinks half before passing it on. "Well, where the hell is she? No way she went mountain climbing."
The man drinks a third. Offers the rest to the dog, then takes a seat on the hood. "Desperation fuels unlikely feats."
"Yeah," she chuckles and moves to join him, "That's how she got knocked up in the first pla-- oh shit fuck Christ that's hot," before hopping off, yelping.
"What do you think?" the man asks Ahmad.
"Please, I can forget your faces." Ahmad's palms are so sweat-drenched the hard black plastic steering wheel beneath them gleams. "I can forget anything you need me to forget. This never happened."
"Right now, I'd rather you remembered. Where else can you go from here?" He nods down the dwindling path past the town's well. "Where does that lead?"
"Nowhere. I swear it. It's a goat trail. You cannot get down the mountain from there."
"Perfect," says the woman, brushing paint-flaked rust off the seat of her black cargo pants, "We'll be home by dinner. I'm starving."
The man's eyes narrow. "How do you know these trails so well?"
Ahmad's trembling hands freeze; the woman raps the trunk of the Nissan with her fist, grinning. "He's a smuggler. Alcohol goes down, opium comes up? It smells like fucking Saigon back there."
The woman takes a pack. The man doesn't. Ahmad leads the way and does not look back. His mutters of 'God is merciful' perk only the ears of the dog who patters lazily behind them. Cool evening comes to the alpine air first; deep shadows with pointed tips slide triangular from tan valleys far below.
Within an hour they pass ATV tracks. An hour after that the ATV, discarded beneath a fifty degree slope of wind-hewn granite. At the top there are footprints: the treads of office shoes and a heavy, limping gait.
Signs of long gone, wary human habitation begin to dot the landscape as they climb: half-toppled gates and half-covered trenches dug as pitfalls that would trip a less wary traveller off the path, over the edge.
At the summit leans a decaying watchtower carved in sharp-angled Bactrian stone. Encircled by cliff on three sides, a dry moat ten to twenty feet depending onto which cracked rock you fell, and one eighth of a wall. Linked by almost two thirds of a bridge still passable to the particularly athletic, driven, or foolhardy.
The man raises his fist. Points to a pile of rock near the pillar at the foot of the bridge; to the dust disturbed all around it. Ahmad squints.
The woman chews her lip. Shrugs. Hefts a fist-size rock and heaves it at the pile.
The man throws himself flat, Ahmad follows suit, the woman drops to her belly and covers her face.
The dog leaps after it with an enthusiastic bark before any of them can stop him.
First a crack, as rock hits rock; next, the bang of an improvised explosive; the wet patter of unintended shrapnel; last, the reverberating rumble of another third of that bridge crumbling into the abyss.
"Well," says the woman, "that solves one of our problems."
"What do you figure: pressure sensing, or radio controlled?" The woman gestures the question with a dripping, ragged-edged thigh bone. A marksman rifle three quarters her not inconsiderable height now sits beside her, having emerged in pieces from the pack.
The man is wrapping his fingers in the firelight. He sits in socked feet--he'll blacken his face last, after he finishes eating. "Could be either. Or something more advanced, knowing her."
"You're hunting a woman," Ahmad observes miserably, "A pregnant woman."
The man ignores him. The woman offers him a skewer. "You sure you're not hungry?"
Ahmad buries his face in his hands.
"It's not bad, you know. Way better than rats. Or maggot rice, for that extra protein."
"In Mozambique I ate my own shoes." The man smiles.
She snorts. "Nobody likes a one-upper."
Night falls. The woman douses the flames with her boot. Embers still bite between the treads when she pushes Ahmad down onto his face with it so that she can bind his hands and ankles with paracord. Then shoves him roughly into a position of ostensible cover behind the pillar. Which she climbs with her arms alone, rifle slung over her broad shoulders. When she crouches at the top the last rays of greying light trace the jagged contours of butterfly wings in indigo ink spread across the bared skin of her back.
The man does not take the bridge. He finds the narrowest part of that yawning divide. Draws his arms up. Sprints. Leaps, the black scarf he wears at his throat fluttered out behind him. He doesn't make it across--that would have been impossible--but his momentum carries him to the other side before he hits the bottom. There he finds finger and toeholds for three limbs. He offers the woman a thumbs up with the fourth, and begins to edge his way around behind the most likely approach to the watchtower.
Before moonrise the darkness here is absolute. The woman pulls a visor down over her eyes, flicks a switch. A filter of grainy green low light vision over shades of black and through it she sees the man crest the lip of the remaining wall. Hop from it soundlessly to the tower itself, grasping only the decorative window ledge one-handed. When he crawls inside he does not touch the ground; he spiderwalks on the walls and along the ceilings, legs braced against them in opposite directions.
"Yeah, I don't know whether to get wet or get hives when he does that either. Way more flexible than I am." The woman's sights follow the man, equally unseen.
"You don't have to do this," Ahmad implores. "Leave now. Untie me. Take everything I have - I will forget. It will be like it never was."
"Now why would I believe that." The man vanishes behind stone; the woman's infrared optics hum to life, like the opening of a single crimson eye. "Why the fuck would you forget us?
"God forgives. God is merciful. Repent, and it will be as if your sins never were." The woman hums too, and Ahmad's whispers grow pitched. "The past is an illusion. A ghost of the mind. Put down the gun and rise a daughter of God in the morning."
She spots the man again through the bright digit-shaped streaks of colour he leaves behind every touch. Only one other patch of green mars the cool blue-black of indistinguishable non-life: well-hidden, under sturdy cover, helpless but to bleed through the stone.
She waits for the other shape to draw closer.
"Look Maddy, if he or I thought we could drive your rattletrap back down without stalling ourselves right off a cliff you'd be dead already. You play your cards right and you'll get to chauffeur us all the way back to Kabul - I've heard you speak four languages, my boss'll love you. I can think of worse futures."
"There is only the future," Ahmad mutters numbly, "The pa--"
The woman depresses the trigger; her ricochet sparks white-hot across solid stone. The green shape moves - she missed, she must have missed - before thinking better of it, as the shape above it uncoils. Lunges with terrible speed.
From a chamber deep within the watchtower there is a sound so loud it shakes pebbles loose for a half-mile around and a flash so bright even the woman rips her optics off, snarling in pain. Were he wearing the same the man inside would be laid out in crippled agony.
But he is wearing his scarf tied around his eyes, instead, wrapped over plugs in his ears.
A woman's cry; a muffled thump; British-accented, posh-flavoured cursing in alto.
The woman with the rifle rubs her eyes. "See? That wasn't so bad, was it? We were never gonna kill her, just take her back to her man." She shrugs down at her prisoner: "You like that, ri... ght... oh fuck me in the ass--"
This cursing is guttural soprano; Ahmad has wriggled free, and he is bolting, tripping, tearing across the landscape on hands and knees if need be. Desperation does fuel him; every time she spots his movement against the black he ducks behind another stone before her tracer-burned vision can resolve.
If he makes it below her line of sight he'll make it to the ATV, and if the keys are in the ATV he'll make it to the car, and if he makes it to the car he'll be gone, gone forever, like he never was.
She lines up a shoddy shot, the only one she'll get.
She never takes it.
Ahmad finds a trench first and falls screaming to his death in the darkness.