Welcome to this week’s Bauer’s Bytes!
I’m a little under the weather today, so instead of a new story, I’m giving you another snippet of Kris’s story. 🙂 This takes places shortly after the first excerpt. The story, at this point, is set in the days following September 11th, 2001. Enjoy!
September 21st, 2001
Uzbekistan was every third world nightmare Kris had ever had, rolled into one depressing, festering city.
Abandoned Soviet factories lingered like scars on the cityscape. Desperately poor Uzbeks huddled on the street corners, their faces lined with weariness and the ravages of occupation, war, and endless struggle. Heroin traffickers from Afghanistan flooded Uzbekistan and Tajikistan’s streets with the cheapest grade of their drugs, and high Uzbeks lay in ditches and on the side of the road in a stupor. The rest of the heroin was refined and sent on to Russia.
Everyone was armed. Everyone carried Russian-made AK-47s over their shoulder, and RPGs and machine guns rested on the back of nearly every rusted-out pickup truck. From the airport, Kris and George sped through the capital to the US embassy in a blacked-out SUV.
The embassy’s political officer met them, ushering them into empty quarters the Marines had vacated for their arrival. Dorm-style beds, and a sink in the corner. A tiny shower, with the water tank directly above. To start the shower, they had to pull a long chain, which would empty the water tank down onto their heads. Hopefully, not in one go.
The political officer and ambassador fed them, spreading out American-style burgers and French fries on a long table in the ambassador’s conference room. There, they got their up-to-the-moment briefing.
“We got word that Shura Nazar officially invited your team into their territory this morning. We received a cable from Dushanbe Station, in Tajikistan. The Shura Nazar diplomat there gave our embassy coordinates for your entry.”
George smiled. “Fantastic.” He turned to Kris and nodded once.
Kris tried to smile back, but it was tight, his lips pressed to his teeth, almost painfully. Guess that was the only recognition he was going to get for making the connections with the Shura Nazar, and guiding Dushanbe Station through their negotiations with a completely foreign and alien potential ally.
What else was new?
Iranian forces were already on the ground. Their Ministry of Intelligence had sent operatives and officers into Afghanistan following September 11th and were already embedded with Shura Nazar units in the south and the west. “Iran, and the Shia government there, hate the Taliban. The Taliban murdered eleven Iranian diplomats when they seized the Iranian embassy.”
“We really don’t want anything to do with the Iranians.” George scowled.
“They’re staying well away from the locations your team is planning on inserting. But, they sent this though the French embassy this morning.” The political officer spread out an Iranian-made map of Afghanistan, with detailed notes of al-Qaeda and Taliban positions labeled throughout the southern region of the country.
“We’ll have to check this out. Get eyes on. We can’t launch without confirmation that these are actual Taliban and al-Qaeda locations.”
“The Iranians told the French to tell us to ‘keep it’. We wanted you to see it first.”
“Forward it to CENTCOM. See if they can get satellite coverage over the targets. Get them on deck for when the bombing starts.”
“The Uzbeks have reported that the Taliban MiG fighters are grounded. You don’t have to worry about air-to-air intercept. Just surface-to-air.”
“MiGs? Who was flying MiGs for the Taliban? They don’t have that military capacity.” Ryan, George’s deputy on the CIA team, frowned, his deep brow furrowing hard.
Kris leaned forward. “Russian mercenaries were flying for the Taliban for a hundred thousand dollars a day. The Taliban could buy that with their drug and oil money. But Moscow has told all mercenaries to get out and get out now.”
“Thought Moscow said they couldn’t control their mercenaries? Hasn’t that been their line for years?” The ambassador’s eyes twinkled.
“Moscow says whatever they need to say, whenever they need to say it.”
The ambassador snorted. “And, your Special Forces team arrived yesterday. They’re bunking at the airport. With the way the weather changes, they want to be ready to move at a moment’s notice.”
Flying over the Hindu Kush mountains and into Afghanistan was fraught with danger under the best conditions. The mountains pushed most helicopters—which were the only possible means of transport into the Shura Nazar held regions of Afghanistan—to their upper limits. The helos shuddered in the thin air, fighting physics and wanting to drop out of the sky. Fog and snow sometimes blinded out the passages, leaving the pilots flying in total white-out conditions.
“Smart. What’s the weather like?”
“Looks like there’s a break in the cloud cover tomorrow. If all holds, you’ll fly out then.”
* * *
The international airport at Tashkent looked like a haphazard series of shipping containers stacked together. Once, it had been painted powder blue, probably by the Soviets, who had a thing for pastels. The flight line was cracked asphalt, weeds filling the divots and cratered holes, never to be repaired. Sinkholes marred the expanse, filled in with cheap tar and sand.
Decrepit MiGs from the days of the Soviet Union languished next to mothballed military helicopters. Nothing had flown in years.
A few squat hangars, their windows broken, sat on the edge of a cracked, unused runway. Light spilled from the open doors and a team of Special Forces operators sat around a mountain of gear.
The political officer drove George and the team right to the hangar, pulling up in front of the team. One man stepped forward, a giant of a man with fiery red hair and a thick beard. He waited as the team piled out. Frigid wind whipped through Kris, cutting through his fleece pullover as he stood on the busted tarmac.
“Captain Sean Palmer?” George strode ahead, hand outstretched.
“That’s me, sir. Special Forces ODA 505, at your service.” Palmer and his small operational detachment would be reporting to George, putting themselves, for the duration of the mission, at George and the CIA’s command.
George introduced the team, Captain Palmer shaking hands as they went around the circle. George turned to Kris last. “And, this is Kris Caldera. He’s the agency’s Afghanistan expert, my political affairs officer, and our linguist on the ground.”
Palmer looked him up and down before holding out his hand. Kris was less than half his size. “Sir,” was all Palmer said.
Kris nodded, gave Palmer a half-smirk, and shoved his hands in the pockets of his jacket. He tucked his face into his scarf.
Palmer brought them into the hangar, to the circle of men who they’d be operating with for future days, weeks, or even months. Some cleaned their rifles and handguns. Others joked around. One was reading.
“Everyone, our Agency people are here.” Palmer introduced them, and went from man to man, finally coming to the last. “And this is Sergeant David Haddad, team medic.”
Haddad nodded to Kris and held out his hand, stepping forward to meet him halfway. Kris shivered, but Haddad’s hand was warm as they touched. Unlike the others, Haddad didn’t hesitate, or raise his eyebrows, or give him the skeptical onceover. “As-salaam-alaikum.”
“Wa alaikum as-salaam.” Kris tried to smile. His lips were still buried in his scarf.
Palmer spoke, puling Kris’s attention from Haddad. “Gentleman, I’d like to get on the same page with you asap. Do you have time for a briefing?”
George nodded, and he beckoned Kris and Ryan to join him and Palmer at Palmer’s small command post—a map and a laptop open next to a flashlight in the hangar—while Jim, Derek, and Philip stayed with the Special Forces team. Kris looked back, once.
Haddad caught his gaze. He smiled, nodding to Kris before turning back to his book.
* * *
Haddad turned away from his book, looking up at Kris. A ghost of a smile turned up one corner of his mouth. “Kee fak?”
Kris smiled. “I thought I placed your accent. Jordanian, yes?” He’d said hello to Haddad in the Jordanian dialect, with the sharper As and the shortened phrasing.
“I grew up in Amman. My mother was a dual citizen. They wanted me to get an American education, so we moved to the states when I was a teen.” He peered at Kris. “You? I can’t place your Arabic.”
“I’m Puerto Rican, actually. Not Middle Eastern.”
“From the island?”
“No, the other Puerto Rico. New York.”
Haddad chuckled. “I didn’t think they spoke Arabic in Puerto Rico.”
As curiosity about his age went, it was one of the nicer, and subtler, questions. At Langley, one of the range officers who’d signed off on Kris’s weapons qualification before the mission had stared at him and outright asked, “Aren’t you a little young for this mission?”
“I studied languages in high school and college. I pick them up easily. I was fluent in Arabic in two years, familiar with most of the dialects in three. Farsi a year after that. I taught myself Dari after the Agency hired me.”
“You speak Spanish, too?”
“Sie. Y tu?”
“Umm…” Haddad chuckled. “I’m just the team medic. It’s a good thing I already knew Arabic. You can’t teach this dog any new tricks.”
Something curled through Kris’s veins, a familiar warmth. “Oh, I’m not sure about that.” He winked.
Mortification drenched Kris, sliding down his bones and under his skin like hot oil. What was he doing? Flirting? With a soldier, a member of the Special Forces? On a mission? His face burned, and he looked away, squinting at the mountain of gear boxes the team had brought with them. Would the ground open up beneath him, please?
God, had George seen that? After his ridiculous spiel to Kris about keeping himself “contained” and to “not advertise”? There he was, flirting with the hot soldier who gave him the time of day. Proving George’s bullshit. Fuck.
Haddad reached for Kris’s ruck, lying nearby. Their gear had been brought to the airport and dropped off, ready and waiting for the final flight into Afghanistan. Haddad dragged Kris’s between them. “I added more gear to your ruck.”
Kris crouched, hiding his groan. Not more shit.
Haddad tugged open the ruck and pulled out each item one by one. “Your headset and radio, extra ammo—” Kris already had his 9-mil strapped to his thigh. “—compass, beacon, maps of all our areas of operations and marked with escape routes, sleep sack, poncho liner, night scope, day scope, flashlight, backup flashlight, GPS, spare batteries, more spare batteries, and more batteries. And everything else you brought.”
His clothes were squished in the bottom, next to a paperback he’d picked up in Germany and his all-weather CIA laptop. “Will five million in cash fit?” He still had the duffel from headquarters under his control. For the moment, it was at the embassy, locked in the ambassador’s safe.
Haddad stared at him. “We talking in ones or in hundreds?”
“Twenties and hundreds.”
Shrugging, Haddad pointed to the bottom of the ruck. “In between the flashlights, maybe?” He grinned. “We should be able to make it all fit.” Haddad shoved everything back into the ruck and stuffed it closed. “Here, try it on.”
The pack was definitely heavier than before. A radio antenna stuck out over one shoulder now, rising tall. His sleeping bag pushed his head forward. Kris stumbled under the weight as he hefted it on his shoulders, but managed to get it settled.
It felt like he was carrying an elephant on his back. He could barely breathe. If he took a step, he’d collapse.
Haddad stared at him. “Good?”
“Yeah.” Kris tried to smile. His eyeballs were going to pop out of his skull if he breathed too deeply.
He probably weighed one third what Haddad did. Haddad’s biceps bulged out of his long-sleeve undershirt like he was a professional NFL linebacker. His chest was solid muscle, tapering down to a trim waist and a belly that had never seen an ounce of fat. Next to him, Kris wasn’t a twink, he was a twig. He was a matchstick, and the ruck was going to snap him in half.
But Haddad smiled at him, again, that small, tight smile.
Kris’s knees weakened, and not from the load.
Shit. He was fucked.
Haddad was gorgeous. He’d recognized that immediately. Someone would have to be blind to not see Haddad’s good looks. He was impressively built, with sculpted muscles that screamed of hours spent in the gym, training his body to perfection.
But, there was more, too. There was laughter in his dark eyes, something that viewed the world unflinchingly and kept a spark alive. And, something deeper. Something that seemed to tug at Kris, a force that made him want to fall into David Haddad, stand and bask beneath his gaze. He had a presence, a pull, and it worked on every bone in Kris’s body. Haddad had his own gravity well, and Kris was a shooting star, brushing too close to his orbit.
No, he couldn’t go there.
Part of him felt like he was falling already, flying at the speed of light right at Haddad.
God, he was fucked. So fucked. He was here to fight a war. Avenge the people who had died, whom he’d let die. Try to fix, somehow, everything he’d done wrong, everything he’d let happen. Not crush on a Special Forces soldier. The army frowned on men like him, anyway. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was the rule of law. Anyone in the military who was as gay as he was had to keep their mouths firmly shut.
That wasn’t his style. And, it didn’t seem like Haddad’s either.
“Let’s get this off you.” Haddad helped him slough off the pack, taking the weight easily in one hand. It had to weigh at least sixty pounds. He tried to hide the deep breath he took, the way he rolled his shoulders. They felt like he’d ripped them off and tried to shove them back into joint the wrong way.
Pain wasn’t sexy. Struggling wasn’t sexy either. He had to carry his weight. Not fall behind, or slow the team down. He’d sworn he would shove George and Ryan’s skepticism in their face, rub their snide looks in his success. He’d sworn he’d do the right thing, dedicate everything he had to the mission, to revenge.
He wouldn’t have time for crushing on Haddad.
He’d broken out in a light sweat hefting the pack, but now that it was off, the frigid Tashkent wind chilled him to the bone. He shivered, shoving his hands back in his black jacket and tucking his face in his wool scarf.
Haddad pulled out a beanie from his cargo pants. “Here. This will help.”
Kris frowned. His hair was his best feature. He’d actually been able to style it that morning. Maybe the last morning for a long, long time. He wanted to enjoy the feeling.
“Your hair is very stylish.” Haddad winked. “But, I promise you. You’re going to want this. It’s only going to get colder.”
Cheeks burning, Kris took the beanie.
* * *
The weather cleared the following night. At daybreak, Kris, George, and the rest of the CIA team left the embassy, heading back to the Tashkent airport. Derek, their pilot, had stayed behind, bunking with Palmer, Haddad, and the rest of the Special Forces team.
When they arrived, the team was loading the squat, fat helicopter that would take them over the Hindu Kush mountains and into Afghanistan. The rotors kept spinning as the soldiers stacked the gear waist high along the center of the cargo area, strapping everything down in a hodge-podge game of Tetris. Mini mountains of equipment and rucks filled the cargo area, almost butting into the fold-down canvas seats along the bulkheads. Kris searched for his, trying to find the smallest rucksack in the mountain of gear. That pack was going to be his home away from home, for maybe half a year. Maybe longer.
“Caldera.” Haddad’s deep voice called out to him, barely audible over the roar of the rotors. Haddad waved to him from near the front of the helo, beckoning him. He had Kris’s ruck on the deck, next to his own.
Haddad’s medic pack made Kris’s ruck look miniscule.
Kris picked his way through as Palmer’s men and his CIA coworkers crammed themselves into too-small seats and shoved their legs around the stacked gear. There was just enough room for the gear and their bodies if they kept their knees up to their chests.
Around him, the helo rumbled, vibrating like it was trying to shake them all off. He imagined every screw turning loose and falling out, the helo coming apart into a billion pieces on the tarmac and leaving them standing in the center of the rubble. The engines roared, the rotors sounding like an endless train was running over them, over and over again.
Haddad pushed down one of the folded canvas seats and passed Kris a headset with padded earphones. He slid them on, careful about his spiked hair. The roar faded, the volume on the world turned down. Kris still felt the vibrations in his bones, felt his organs rumble and pulse, but at least he could hear himself think.
Haddad’s smooth voice came through the headset. “You’re going to want to put on that beanie I gave you. The rear ramp and side doors will be kept open so the door gunners can hold position throughout the entire flight. It’s going to be frigid.”
Kris tugged on Haddad’s beanie and zipped up his fleece jacket. He had his thick outer jacket shoved in the top of his ruck, and he crouched down to grab it. As he did, the helo’s engines turned over, spinning up with a wail. He pitched sideways and then forward, the helicopter shuddering and shaking, knocking everyone around. He braced himself, reaching for what was closest. Both his hands wrapped around Haddad’s thighs, his face mashed into Haddad’s hip.
“Sorry! Shit, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…” Kris scrambled back, falling on his ass. He’d inadvertently hit on Haddad yesterday, and now this? He could practically feel George and Ryan’s scorn burning into his back, feel the weight of judgment crashing down on him. This wasn’t the time, nor the place. He had assholes to prove wrong. Falling into the lap of hunky Sergeant Haddad was not part of the plan.
Gently, Haddad helped him up, holding onto his elbows until he was steady on his feet. Haddad held onto the helo’s hand holds and pulled Kris’s leather gloves and camo poncho liner, a silken, down-filled blanket that felt like a slice of heaven when Kris had first handled it, out of his ruck. “Put on the gloves, too. And keep the liner near. You’ll probably want to wrap up in it.”
Kris nodded, looking away. Was bone-melting mortification going to be his default setting now, especially around Haddad? He was off to a great start. Kris strapped himself into his seat, waiting stiffly as Haddad buckled in next to him. Haddad’s muscles, wrapped up in his own layers of fleece and heavy jacket, pushed against Kris, their bodies pressing together from shoulders to ankles. He tried to shift away, as subtly as he could.
Through the headset, Kris heard Derek talk through their takeoff, their route through Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, over the mountains, and into Afghanistan. Derek spoke to Tashkent tower, CENTCOM, and CIA CTC directly, bouncing signals off satellites to reach three different places on earth simultaneously. The flight crew, bundled up in near-Arctic cold weather gear, took up positions at the massive machine guns mounted at the side doors and rear ramps as the helo lifted off.
Their mission, officially, had begun. They were on their way to Afghanistan.
They banked hard and turned south east, driving low and fast toward the border. Tashkent disappeared, turning to sprawling farmland, the land worked over by stooped men with wooden hand tools and mules. They were flying through time, it seemed, gazing down at centuries past. Dirt roads cut between the farms, snaking through untouched steppe and rugged wilderness.
Kris pressed back against the seat, pushed by the force of Derek’s acceleration. Rays of bitter sunlight split into the cabin, knives that seemed to slice through the freezing air. He squinted, fumbling for his sunglasses. Haddad, of course, already had his on.
Grassland and steppe beneath them faded, replaced by dust and scrub highland. Roads vanished, turning to trails, and then rutted tracks that only camels could traverse. Part of Kris wanted to lean out and take it all in. These were ancient roads, caravan tracks used by Silk Road travelers, and before that, the first humans to cross the Asian continent. He wanted to revel in it, in history and sights that no one had been able to see for years.
But he was too damn cold.
Ten minutes into the flight, Kris was a popsicle. He shivered, huddling into his jacket as the temperature kept dropping. He burrowed under the poncho liner and tried to pull his beanie down farther. Tried to tuck his face into the top of his jacket. The rest of the team was bundled up as well, but they all had at least a hundred pounds on him to begin with. He was the runt.
As if to spite him, Derek pushed the chopper faster, dropping altitude until they were running full speed down the length of a twisting wadi. There was nothing beneath them, no signs of life. The earth looked like the moon, like the ocean had been drained and they were the last humans on the planet at the end of the world. Ahead, the mountains on the border of Afghanistan soared, scraping the sky with peaks of snow and ice.
He left his stomach behind as the helo rose, a dramatic ascent that pitched them nearly vertical. He was strapped in, but still, he flailed. Haddad reached for him. His poncho liner slipped, but Haddad caught it, wrapped it tighter around him. The mountains seemed to encircle them, getting closer, closer, until Kris was certain they were going to crash. He flinched, squeezing his eyes shut.
Haddad’s hand landed on his knee, squeezing once.
Kris heard Derek calling out altitude readings. He’d never heard Derek’s voice go that high, that strained, as he heard through the headset. Once, back at Langley, Derek had walked them through the ball-shriveling terror that was flying over the Hindu Kush. Few had ever done it, and lived. No Americans ever had. The mathematics and physics alone were almost suggested it was a next to impossible flight.
Most helo pilots thought they were hot shit if they flew up to ten thousand feet in altitude. The hindu Kush mountains started at ten thousand feet, and then went straight vertical, as if they held up the sky, poked through the atmosphere and jabbed at the stars.
When he opened his eyes, they had leveled off and were flying between two massive walls of snow-and-ice-coated stone. At fourteen thousand feet, Haddad signaled the rest of the team, and everyone reached for oxygen masks above their heads. Haddad pulled Kris’s down and showed him how to hold it, putting the aviator’s mask over his face. Cold oxygen flowed, frigid, but welcome. His head, which had started to ache, cleared.
Derek threading the mountain passes, their rotors buzzing snow flurries off the sides of peaks, close enough that their rotors whistled next to the rock face. He could reach out and brush the ice, if he wanted. Jagged peaks of untouched, pure ice touched the sky in every direction. Sunlight pierced the sky, falling through the mountains like samurai swords, like blades from a vengeful god. They and their helo were tiny, insignificant, and as far from humanity, from life as he knew it, as he’d ever been. Were there any humans on the planet more remote than them? If someone had told Kris they were actually on the moon, he would have believed them.
Did time still exist? Kris could hear his own heart beat, the hiss of the oxygen, and the rumble of the rotors, but other than that, it was like being dropped into someone else’s memory. Each blink lasted a lifetime, the world a smear that passed before his eyes.
Derek continued to call out elevation markers. Sixteen thousand feet. Sixteen-five.
He couldn’t stop shivering. Haddad’s hand on his thigh was the one warm point of contact in his whole body. He wasn’t going to make it to Afghanistan. He was just going to freeze, aside from his knee, on this flight.
Haddad felt his shivers, he was certain. At seventeen thousand, two hundred feet, Haddad pulled out his poncho liner and a second jacket from his ruck and laid them both on top of Kris. Kris hid his face in the fleece and turned into Haddad. Fuck his pride. He needed the warmth.
Haddad wrapped one arm around him and pulled him close.
The jagged peaks eventually gave way, turning to endless stretches of rumbling brown hills, snow snaking in waves across the higher elevations until that too petered off. Beneath them, as far as the eye could see, was the earth made wild, unimpeded wilderness, void of any human touch. Hills and valley, rugged and brown and filled with dried ravines, scrub brush and steppe land. No humans. No life at all.
Finally, almost two hours after the flight began, the helo turned south west and headed into the mouth of the Panjshir Valley.
The Soviets, during their occupation, had called the Panjshir the Valley of Death. They’d lost more soldiers in that valley than anywhere else, and had come to a standstill in their occupation trying to press deeper into the wild Afghanistan mountains. They’d failed, until they’d turned tail and ran. The valley had been a graveyard of invaders for centuries, the Soviets only the most recent to meet their end at the hands of the Afghans. Before them it had been the British. Before the British, Alexander the Great had been stopped on the land soaring beneath them.
Would America be the next great empire to find its end in Afghanistan? Would they themselves meet their end in this Valley of Death?
From the sky, Kris spotted the remains of the Soviet occupation and endless civil war everywhere: rusted-out tanks and troop transports, bomb craters that had obliterated the roads, tattered remnants of minefield warning signs. Square-shaped mud houses riddled with bullet holes huddled together around the winding banks of the Panjshir river, the waters a deep, unfiltered sapphire. Green grass murmured around the tiny villages before petering out to brown wastelands and dusty wadis. Beauty and desolation, life and death. Afghanistan.
Derek called over the headset, “Three minutes to LZ!”
Palmer and George popped up. The rest of the team turned on, going from sleepy laziness to full speed in a half second. Jackets and poncho liners were stowed, shoved into packs. Books and music players disappeared. They strapped on their gear, tightened their helmets, and readied their weapons.
Kris tried to keep up. His breath still fogged in front of his face. He couldn’t feel his cheeks. His lungs felt like they were frozen from the inside.
Ahead, a bend in the river cut a wide, barren portion of the valley off from the rest of the villages. A group of rusted pick-up trucks waited, while Afghan men clutching rifles stared at the sky.
The helo banked hard and spun. Tilted, wobbled left and right.
Finally, they set down with a lurch on the dusty ground.
Palmer started barking orders, and his men burst out of the chopper, taking up protective positions. A group of three Afghans started for the chopper, AK-47s in their hands. Behind them, a ring of rusted and bullet-riddled pickup trucks waited, Afghans leaning out to the cabs and the back of the beds, watching.
Every man held a weapon. Every man stared at the helo, at the team, their eyes dark, gazes pinched.
George and Palmer strode across the grass and dirt field, under the watchful eyes of the entire team. Kris saw fingers half-squeezed on triggers on nearly everyone. They were at the coordinates the Shura Nazar had given them. Was this their welcoming party? Or a trap? Kris searched the faces, looking for one he recognized, a photo from the files he’d read backwards and forwards at Langley.
He should be out there. He’d negotiated the bones of the alliance, had done the leg work to make this happen. He needed be there with George and Palmer.
Haddad held him back, though. “Wait for the signal.”
In the field, outside the wind kicked up from the spinning rotors of their helo, Palmer reached out and shook hands with one of the Afghans. George greeted him next. Their bodies were stiff, and the Afghan in the center glared at them both. He’d shouldered his rifle, but the others hadn’t. Palmer waved to the helo, though.
“All right, now it’s showtime.” Haddad looked down at Kris, his deep eyes searing into him. “You’re going to kick ass, Caldera. I know it.” He guided Kris out of the chopper, jogging them both out to where Palmer and George waited. Haddad kept close, inside Kris’s shadow, his weapon at the low and ready.
The rotors over the chopper still spun, kicking dust into the air and blowing icy wind in cyclones around the raggedy group. Towering over them, steel-gray mountains scraped the cloudless sky, like the valley was the dungeon of the earth.
Kris spoke in Dari, holding out both hands for the Afghan man to take, to grasp. “Thank you for your hospitality. We’re the Americans. We’re here to help you destroy the Taliban.”
“Welcome to Afghanistan,” the man said. He held out both hands, taking Kris’s and drawing him into an embrace. He smiled, his teeth square and yellowed, smile gaping where teeth had fallen out. “The Shura Nazar welcomes you to our fight. I am Fazl. Come. We will take you to your new home.”
Timestamp: Shortly after September 11th, 2001; early part of Kris’s forthcoming novel