He awakened. It was not yet dawn. Once the dry, scratching, blinking was over and he could actually see, he let his eyes adjust. There was a faint glimmer behind the blinds; the sun would be up soon. He looked at his watch. 0615. There was plenty of time yet.
He pulled off the blankets, pushed them aside, pivoted to the edge of the cot, and lowered his feet to the cold, bare floor of the trailer, what they called a “CHU” (containerized housing unit). It was a fancy sounding name for what was really just a trailer; but he was very thankful for it. The last time he had been out here he had slept on the soil each night in a bag that was just too small and too thin, and he’d nearly frozen every night. To create warmth inside the bag, he would use little tricks he had learned or picked up during his military service. One of his was to light up a bunch of automatic heating packets, put one in each sock under the soles of his feet, put one at the base of his back, and hold one in each hand. A good seal on the bag ensured the heat would remain inside, such that he could stave off the cold overnight. It was a spartan existence in those first days after 9/11, when he was on the ground with the other special operations forces in Afghanistan. But that was all in the distant past now. On this cold, overcast morning, he slept in comparative luxury.
He ambled over to the cheap, drip coffee maker he had brought along this time and fired it up. In seconds, it was quietly sputtering to life just like he was, the first drops of the hot, maple-colored nectar spilling into the carafe, the entire little contraption hissing small puffs of steam into the room. He pulled the three-legged camp-stool over and sat down beside it, his only real creature comfort in this land that time and history had forgotten.
Moments like this played so much more on the senses in a place like this than somewhere back in the civilized world. It was as if each sensory organ was on a heightened state of alert and things sounded clearer and smelled and tasted so much better. As the pot slowly filled, the familiar aroma nearly overpowered him. Involuntary spurts of saliva formed in his mouth as he waited for there to be enough to fill his metal camping mug. Finally, it was ready.
He poured the amber liquid worth its weight in gold into the metal cup and replaced the carafe to collect the rest of the brew. With both hands he lifted it to his face. He let the warm vapors slowly fold across his face, put his nose into the cup like one might do at a wine-tasting, hesitated, then lifted it to his lips. Oh it was good. So good.
He was on an outpost that didn’t officially exist. To even call it an outpost was being kind. Word had filtered in that AQ fighters trying to flee American bombardment into neighboring Pakistan had finally been rebuffed along the porous, Afghan-Pak border and were now pushing northward into Afghanistan’s Badakshan region, seeking a place to cross over into Tajikistan. And the Tajiks were having none of it.
They had called in all the favors they had, which were few, and something unthinkable barely a decade or so before was now reality: Russian and American forces had set up a remote over-watch base near the village of Ishkoshim, at what everyone believed might be an exodus point for any AQ stragglers hell-bent on getting to the closest entry point into Tajikstan, where the Panj River turned north after flowing due west for a thousand kilometers out of the towering Hindu-Kush and Pamir mountain ranges.
The site of the base was located in a part of Tajikistan that jutted well into Afghan territory like an arrowhead, and one look at a map raised the possibility to the casual observer that would-be invaders would just go east into the sparsely-populated Wakhan Corridor or west through the pass toward the town of Faizabad, but a longer and more strategic look at the same map would reveal that the only bridge crossing the Panj for hundreds of miles in either direction was located at Ishkoshim. Any attempt to ford the river up or downstream would be foolhardy and extremely dangerous; the Panj was a mountain river that drained snow melt coming down off the massive peaks of the Hindu-Kush and Pamirs, and as such, it was constantly flowing at a rapid pace with unpredictable and swirling currents; deep, speedy, cold, and deadly.
Those geographic factors aside, he thought it highly unlikely anyone was coming up through this avenue of approach; the terrain was just too damn rugged and the Panj was too dangerous. They’d have to be foolish to attempt it. But here he was. The powers that be had determined this was the place the newly-minted Russo-American alliance would make a stand, complete with the firepower necessary to do it.
So they waited.
The days had settled into a kind of routine. He and the Russian officer had struck up a friendship, often eating and working out together. He wondered how this odd couple would be viewed if anyone ever bothered to come out here. He had told his wife about Sergei, and she had asked, “Do you think you can trust him?” “I don’t have much choice,” he had told her. He was under no illusions that Sergei wasn’t reporting on everything he and the American detachment were doing; it was the exact thing he was required to do: report back on what the Russians were doing. But he thought Sergei knew this; that the two of them were in some strange, symbiotic relationship where it was understood they were sort of spying on one another. But in the end, he and Sergei had exchanged some things the powers that be didn’t know and didn’t need to know about. The Russian was a regular guy, and the two of them knew if something went down they’d have to rely on each other. Nobody wanted to die here in what military historians called the “Graveyard of Empires,” and he and Sergei both knew it was highly unlikely reinforcements would be coming swiftly in the event something big happened. They were essentially on their own.
One day they were walking together, and Sergei had said, “I get these odd requests, you know. ‘What are the Americans doing?’ You know what I tell them?” “What?” “I tell them, ‘What do you think the Americans are doing? They’re doing what we do. They wake up, walk the lines, inspect and maintain their weapons, eat, work out, and sleep, just like us.’” “Are they satisfied with that answer?” “Of course not. They want me to keep a record,” Sergei said shaking his head. “Do they ask the same of you?” he asked. “Yes. Between you and me of course. I think our countries have been enemies for so long it’s hard for people to readjust. It’s easier to just keep acting like it’s 1960, you know?” “We will pay it, how do you say? Lip service. No?” Sergei offered with a laugh. “Yes. Lip service. I like it Sergei. Your English is getting better and better.”
The sound awakened him. He only knew he was now awake as he lay on his back in the pitch darkness, but something had registered in his ears and made its way to his brain and awakened him. He heard yelling. And then another explosion. He rolled off the cot onto the floor. He laid very still on his chest and listened, all senses acutely attuned. Another loud explosion. There were tremendous detonations erupting off in the distance, no doubt now. He jumped up, pulled his boots on, put on his vest, and grabbed his Kevlar. He retrieved the 9 mm Beretta from his locker and grabbed the M-4. And went outside.
It was 0330. He could see fires in the distance. More yelling. People running in different directions. He walked quickly down to the rally point, and there he found Gunny Jones. “I think they’re coming, Sir.” “Get everyone to their posts.” “Roger that, Sir.” He watched whatever was going on in the distance and tried to make sense of it. They were not taking fire at the outpost yet, but something was happening in the vicinity of the bridge over the Panj. It looked like mortar shells going off.
He turned and looked down the line toward the Russian positions. And saw what looked like tube flashes. He started running in their direction. The Russians were firing on something.
“Sergei!” he yelled into the darkness. He found the Russian officer standing behind one of his mortar teams. “What’s going on?” “They’re trying to cross the bridge!” All he could do was watch. There was no way they could see whether anyone or anything was on the bridge; it was too damn dark. “How do you know?” “My sentry saw them!” “How do you know it’s not civilians?”
Sergei didn’t answer. The firing continued. Finally, the firing ceased. It was eerily quiet. All eyes peered into the darkness toward where the shells had been impacting. All weapons were sighted in on the target. Seconds turned into minutes. No sound came from the impact area. Then…
A low, plaintive, wailing started to roll across the distance. Quiet at first, then increasing in volume and intensity. Then more voices joined in. It sounded like a platoon of ghosts moaning from out of the darkness. But it didn’t sound … human. “What the hell is that?”
To be continued.