Welcome to Bauer’s Bytes, and the last excerpt of Whisper before the release! This week, enjoy a sneak peek at Chapter 6!
Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan
September 27, 2001
War, like all things, moved slowly.
Scouting the front lines was delayed. The trucks Kris ordered from Khan arrived through Ghasi and Fazl, hulks of scrap metal with bullet holes and overheating engines. Each had a bucket of water in the bed and old mounts for a Russian PK machine gun. They’d been technicals once, the light cavalry of warlords and sanctioned countries the world over: old, beat-up pickup trucks retrofitted with machine guns.
“Captured from Taliban,” Fazl said, pride in his voice. “Now they are ours. Yours.”
Despite General Khan’s insistence that he wanted to move quickly, he still seemed to operate on Afghan Time. George, Ryan, and Palmer fumed as one day bled into the next and the Shura Nazar officers still hadn’t arrived for the joint intelligence cell.
“The culture isn’t based on linear thinking, George.” Kris tried to calm another of Ryan and George’s rants. They paced on the concrete porch as they drank cups of instant coffee. “The culture is based on relationships. Impressions. Time is an afterthought to the importance of relationships.”
“We don’t have time to waste on relationships,” George growled.
“You’re going to have to make time. You can’t force this. We’re guests in their country asking for their help.”
Ryan snorted. “We can do this without their help. We really can.”
George’s jaw worked, his teeth grinding. “What do you suggest, Caldera? As the Afghanistan expert?”
“Slow down. Connect more with Khan, with the Shura Nazar forces.”
“Speaking of connecting—”
George shot a harsh glare at Ryan, shaking his head sharply. Ryan held up his hands, but he stared Kris down.
“How are the intercepts coming?”
Kris sighed. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to block out the headache that lived behind his eyeballs. “Good, so far. We’re getting a shit ton of traffic. I’m going as fast as I can, but…” He trailed off. His fastest still wasn’t enough to keep up with everything they were getting.
Half a day in-country, Phillip had broken into the Taliban radio net. Every Taliban radio transmission in range of their receivers was vacuumed up and recorded. Kris spent hours listening in real-time and to the recordings, translating endless conversations in Dari and Arabic.
Al-Qaeda used a different radio frequency, and Phillip hadn’t had as much success breaking into their radio net. Yet. Part of the problem was that the team’s headquarters was so far from al-Qaeda’s base of operations. The Taliban front lines were far closer.
“Sergeant Haddad has been helping you translate?” George’s voice went thin. His gaze was guarded.
Kris nodded. He said nothing.
Haddad stuck to him like he was Kris’s personal shadow. From sunrise, when the team rose, all through the day, and into the evening. When the radio transmissions started piling up, Haddad jumped in, grabbing a set of headphones and listening in to the Arabic transmissions, the Taliban communicating with al-Qaeda, or foreign fighters within the Taliban ranks.
He and Haddad hadn’t spoken much. Translating radio intercepts wasn’t a talkative job. After, Kris was so brain-dead and exhausted that he usually stayed quiet throughout dinner and the team meetings. But Haddad was always right there, at his side. Most evenings, he sat close enough that Kris could slouch into his side. He could almost rest his head on Haddad’s shoulder.
But he didn’t.
Not because he didn’t want to.
It was Ryan who stopped him, and George. The eyes that followed him at headquarters, the snide comments behind his back. The guys from The Farm, even, in training, who’d thought he’d never make it through, would never graduate and become an officer. Everything and everyone stopped him.
Ryan’s eyes glittered, the way he watched Kris, like a predator stalking a gazelle on the savanna. One wrong move, one mistake, and Kris would prove everyone’s worst imaginings, their worst prejudices, right.
And what would Haddad think if he folded into Haddad bodily the way his soul was folding into his care and comfort? What was this, between them? He didn’t know, and he couldn’t know. Couldn’t imagine anything, either. There was no time, no space to wonder, or to dream. Each day was spent living one hour at a time, doing what they had to do. Building an alliance. Starting a war. Striking back.
Every night, Kris retreated to his sleeping bag early, collapsing for a few hours of fitful sleep. He woke in the middle of the night, inevitably, and crawled out to the radio room. If he was up, then he might as well translate some radio intercepts.
Haddad had followed him, about an hour later, the first night. He hadn’t said anything, just sat beside Kris and started working on his own translations.
Every morning, as the first beams of the cold marigold sun began to peek through the mountains, Haddad brought him a cup of instant coffee and insisted he take a break. The rest of the team woke up to them sitting around the fire, sometimes talking softly, sometimes just staring at the flames.
Occasionally, Haddad asked about life at the CIA. What Kris did at Langley, and how he liked working there. Kris asked him about the Army, about the Special Forces.
Haddad said training was awful, he loved the camaraderie and brotherhood, and that he’d deployed to Somalia and survived the Battle of Mogadishu. He didn’t say much after that.
There was no privacy in their compound, or in the village. Everyone saw how Haddad stuck by him, how close they were becoming. Every meal was eaten side by side. They all ate together on a wide blanket spread in the corner of the main compound, surrounded by cushions. Occasionally, Haddad slid a piece of meat to Kris’s plate, or gave him two apples and his hunk of fresh-baked bread. Every night, they retired to the same sleeping room.
Their sleeping bags were islands in the little stone room, though. As much as Kris might wonder what was happening between them, the six inches of empty space between their sleeping bags was answer enough. To Haddad, he must be someone to protect. A part of the mission, something catalogued and itemized and checked, like his medical equipment and his rifle.
Should he be bothered that Haddad thought he needed so much caretaking?
The truth was, he didn’t want to fight it. He liked Haddad’s protection, his quiet care. A part of him even craved it.
Dangerous ground, he warned himself. Dangerous territory. Focus on the mission.
Besides, you’re not worth someone like him. He should do better than the likes of you.
Kris slipped up to the roof of their compound in the evenings to watch the sun set. Phillip and Jim were up there five times a day, cleaning the fuel filter of the generator and trying to keep their power up and running. The fuel in Afghanistan was so poorly refined that it clogged their generator, shutting everything down. When Derek saw the condition of the generator’s filter, he booked it back down to the airfield and checked their parked helo. Both fuel filters were clogged, almost completely. Had they flown any farther during their initial flight, they would have stalled and crashed.
Afghanistan’s war-ravaged past littered the country as far as the eye could see. The village they were in had been captured six out of the eight times the Soviets had invaded the Panjshir Valley. It was the high-water mark of their invasion. They’d never succeeded in advancing any farther. The Afghans had pushed them back each time, devastating the Soviets. For months, the village had been shelled and bombed day and night during the invasion, almost fifteen years before. Every building had crumbled. The rubble of old houses stood beside the new square mud homes, the entire village shifted ten feet to the left. Resilience in its purest form.
Massoud had led his fighters against the Soviets and against the Taliban. He’d been an Afghan nationalist for longer than Kris had been alive. His presence, his influence, his leadership, was everywhere in the Panjshir, permeating the people and the nation.
Al-Qaeda had succeeded where empires had failed, extinguishing the life of the strongest warlord in Afghanistan. Massoud’s death had been their opening act to September 11.
If September 11 hadn’t happened, if it had been stopped, would Masood still be alive?
Could it have been stopped? If his team, if he, had shared what they knew of Marwan al-Shehhi, Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar? Could the hijackers have been stopped?
He tried to rein in his morose thoughts, tried to stop the tumble and slide of his mind into the darkness of shame.
“Caldera?” Haddad’s voice cut through the miasma, the fog that surrounded him. Kris turned. Haddad strode across the empty roof. Jim and Phillip had left, probably long ago, through with cleaning the fuel filter. They’d be back in a few hours, at it again.
“Hey.” The sun had almost set, the sky streaked with watercolor pastels, lilac and periwinkle, persimmon and cornflower. Stars winked overhead, burning points that speared through the sky, undaunted by city lights or pollution. When the night turned black, and the only light came from the fire and the red night-vision bulbs they switched over to, the night sky looked like a beachhead of the universe, the stars like the sand of the galaxy twinkling as waves and waves of darkness rolled over the world.
Staring up at the stars made him feel like he was the only human on the entire planet. For once, the universe appeared as lonely as he felt, seemed to echo inside all of his empty places.
Haddad stopped at Kris’s shoulder, close enough that their arms, their thighs, their hips brushed, swayed back and forth. In a moment, Haddad would step away, cough and look down, shift, and try and play the touches off. Kris saw it all the time.
“It’s pretty here.” Haddad’s voice was soft, deep. “Sometimes it’s hard to imagine the worst atrocities happen in the most beautiful places. Somalia was like that, in a way. And—” He stopped. Swallowed. “Makes you wonder sometimes. Why the world’s like this.”
Kris sighed. “Everything’s connected. It’s all one big web. A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, and the stock market crashes. We thought we could ignore Afghanistan, but we were wrong. Where does it all begin, though? Where’s the beginning of the web? Of this hate?”
Massoud fighting the Taliban. Massoud fighting the Russians, the communists, America’s enemy. There was a thread connecting everything together, he knew it. History was a flow that tumbled all things to their end, consequences and outcomes frothing up from the actions and reactions of time. What were they creating now, in their moment? What would tumble forth, ever onward, from their actions, this time?
Haddad sighed. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket. He didn’t step away. Kris felt every inch of his breath, the slow rise and fall of his chest. “Whatever beginning there is, it was long before now.”
Kris’s soul flinched, his insides carved out so suddenly he almost collapsed. His mouth moved. He tried to breathe, tried to speak. Couldn’t. Black flags flapped in the distance, on the edge of the horizon, and in the back of his mind, burned into the backs of his eyelids.
Haddad stared at him beneath the stars. In the darkness, his eyes were stars themselves, too close to Kris, burning through him, exposing him. “Caldera?” His words puffed in front of his face, the chill of the night trying to freeze their bones.
Kris stepped back. “We should get inside.” His breath fluttered, as if it could escape him. “Ryan… He’ll wonder where I am.”
Haddad said nothing, just walked with Kris down to the landing and then into the compound.
George and Ryan both looked up as they walked in together. Kris saw them trade long looks.
At his side, Haddad stared back.
In the morning, Khan’s promised officers arrived: Wael and Bashir. They got to work and connected with the Shura Nazar radio operators across the Panjshir, started receiving detailed intelligence and information reports from each outpost. Taliban frontline positions, fortifications, fighters, and armaments. Observations of troop movements. Even what some of the Taliban ate for breakfast.
Kris helped tack up a wall-sized map of Afghanistan in their command center. George and Ryan marked off the positions Wael and Bashir identified, setting pins wrapped with colored string around the Taliban and Shura Nazar positions. Ryan faded away after, hovering over Phillip as he transmitted the morning’s reports back to Langley over the fussy secured satellite interlink.
“If we start bombing, and we don’t have exact GPS positions on the Shura Nazar forces, we’re going to be killing a lot of innocent people.” George scrubbed his face. “Kris, the GPS positions are critical. We have to know exactly where they are.”
“I know. I’ll get it done.” What was this, him being given possibly the most critical job on the team? George, for all his criticism, his dark glares and veiled stares, wanted the mission to succeed. Wanted the US to wash Afghanistan in righteous vengeance, destroy the Taliban, and al-Qaeda, and even bolster the Shura Nazar.
“You’re the best linguist of us all, Kris. And you understand the people more than the rest of us. You’ve connected with Khan. You’re the only one who can make sure nothing is missed.” Over his coffee, George’s eyes looked like sunken pits, eyeballs falling into sagging crevices of exhaustion. “Ryan, Jim, and Palmer are going to take the Special Forces guys and survey the Shura Nazar forces. See what kind of support they need. Supplies.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes closed again. “We—the team, Langley, CENTCOM, even the president—can’t do anything until you get back with those coordinates.”
“I understand, George.” Pressure coiled around his spine. Was it not enough he had thousands of souls on his conscience already? Should he add the nation of Afghanistan to his guilt? “What about the MREs? I told General Khan I would be providing aid to his people.”
“And you’ll be bringing it. All of it. God help us, I hope we don’t starve.”
“Ghasi is taking care of us.”
“For now. I’ve requested a resupply from Langley. They have to fly the MREs to us from Germany through Tajikistan. It will take a week. I hope our goodwill with the Shura Nazar lasts that long.”
Don’t be an asshole, and it will. Kris bit his tongue. “When do I leave?”
“They’re packing everything into your truck now. The driver who brought Wael and Bashir is taking you down to the front as soon as that’s done. Are you ready?”
He’d been packed for days, since George had first told him he was going. Kris nodded.
“Good luck. We’re all counting on you.” George shook his hand, the firmest he’d ever had, as if George meant what he was saying. “If anyone can do this, it’s you.”
He didn’t know what to say.
Haddad appeared at their elbows. “Truck is packed, sir.”
George’s eyes skittered away from Kris. “Good. Time for you both to head out.”
“Both?” Kris looked from Haddad to George and back.
“No one goes anywhere alone. You two seem to work well together. Haddad will provide security and backup while you’re scouting positions with General Khan.”
Haddad gave Kris the tiniest smile.
Within the hour, they were bouncing down the loosest definition of a road, ever, in their truck. It was a bone-shattering one hundred miles to the front lines, but it might as well have been a thousand. The mountain track winding through the Panjshir was one lane wide, big enough for horses or camels. Any width added by the Soviets during the invasion had long crumbled away into ruin. Craters and remnants of artillery and splintered bombs littered the mountains, the roadside, the road itself. Dust, millennia of dust, blew around the truck until Kris couldn’t see. He couldn’t brace himself when the truck inevitably careened into the craters, the pits in the road. Each jolt felt like a car accident, felt like he’d been rear-ended by a semi.
He sat in the front while Haddad sat in the back with both their daypacks. Kris had packed all his cold weather gear—sweaters, neoprene undersuit, wool gloves, scarves, Haddad’s hat—water, and a few MREs for himself. Haddad’s pack was larger. The MREs for Khan were in the truck bed.
Two hours into the drive, just over halfway to the front, the road curled around a blind bend in the mountain and then opened up, descending to a verdant, wide river valley, the mouth of the Panjshir Valley. The river that wound through the village collected tributaries and creeks through its passage south and had widened to a flat delta spread between the mountains. Mudbrick homes, ringed in apple orchards and small farms, squatted between the peaks on the bank of the delta. They were a million miles away from home, but, for a moment, it seemed like a scene from President Lincoln’s childhood.
On the opposite peak, fluttering above the valley, a line of green flags waved in the wind. Martyr’s flags. Sunlight splintered into the mountain, streaks of light that hit each one.
“General Massoud’s grave?” Kris’s stomach knotted.
Their driver nodded, but didn’t look up. His hands clenched around the steering wheel until the old plastic squealed. He refused to wipe away the tears rolling down his cheeks as he sped them out of the valley and toward the Shomali Plain.
An hour later, after speeding along the northern edge of the Shomali Plain and hugging the mountains and cliffs, their driver turned toward a compound surrounded by a chain-link fence twined with barbed wire. Blocky concrete buildings, reminiscent of Soviet architecture, loomed within. T-72 Russian tanks and Soviet artillery lay parked in even rows. Sandbagged machine gun positions hovered before the compound with antiaircraft positions dug into the hills above. Soldiers in crisp, clean uniforms manned guard posts, watching their approach with an eagle eye, weapons at the ready. They recognized their driver, but gave Kris and Haddad long, lingering looks.
Radios on the guards’ waists chirped, spitting out Dari. The guards listened, and then opened the gates and waved the truck through. A delegation of officers waited across the clearing, at the compound’s entrance.
“This is… much more organized than we expected,” Haddad said under his breath. “I’ve seen Army bases run with less precision.”
Kris met his gaze through the rusted rearview mirror. A motley band of guerilla fighters, these people were not.
General Khan waited at the steps of the compound. He beamed when he spotted Kris through the filthy passenger window.
“Gul Bahar!” Laughing, Khan held both his hands open as Kris climbed out of the truck, shaking his limbs loose and trying to reseat joints banged up and bruised from the brutal drive. “I am pleased you are here.” Khan hugged him tight and kissed both of his cheeks. He held one hand over his heart.
Haddad waited behind Kris. “David Haddad,” he said simply, holding out his ungloved hands. He clasped Khan’s hand in both of his as they shook, bowing slightly. “Thank you for your hospitality, General.”
Khan’s chest swelled. His smile grew. “Come, come, we will share tea,” he said in his stilted English. He beckoned them both into the compound.
Kris turned back to the truck for his pack. Haddad stopped him. “There’s only one pack.”
“What? I packed mine and loaded it into the truck myself. Did it get left behind?”
Haddad shook his head. He hefted his own, much larger than it had been when they left. He didn’t strain, didn’t flinch. “I repacked everything. Into my bag.”
“The general is waiting for us.”
Khan called from the doorway. “Come! The tea will be cold!”
He wanted to scream, rip the pack from Haddad’s shoulders and shake out all his belongings. He could carry his own weight, Goddamn it. Wasn’t that his vow from day one? He could handle himself. What right did Haddad have, butting in and sweeping everything away from him? Wrapping him up in… What was this? Consideration? Or condescension?
Haddad nodded for him to follow Khan. Kris sighed, a promise that they would revisit this later, that the conversation was not finished. He had to put his foot down before Haddad ran right over him and his convictions.
Khan eyed Haddad shouldering their shared pack. He smiled again at Kris. “Agha Gul Bahar.”
Agha, the honorific title for a man of respect. A leader, the man in charge. Kris stared at Haddad.
Haddad smothered a smile as he looked down, keeping behind Kris’s shoulder. Deferential.
Damn it, he’d done it on purpose. And he’d known what message shouldering the pack would send, what General Khan and the others would see out of his actions. Haddad had just shown Khan, and all the Afghans, that Kris was his leader, his superior. That Kris should be treated as an equal to General Khan.
Kris followed Khan, winding through corridors and up narrow staircases until they arrived at the top floor, General Khan’s private office and quarters. The room provided a panoramic view of the Shomali Plain, the former breadbasket of Afghanistan. Once, it had been a lush garden, fruit orchards and farmers’ fields from the eastern slopes of the Hindu Kush to the desert edges of western Afghanistan, all the way to the gates of Kabul.
Now, armies ringed both sides of the Plain, Taliban and Shura Nazar. Decades of war had ravaged the land, turning the fields to desolate wastes, as pitted and pocked as the moon, and just as welcoming. Only the dead lived in the Plain now.
Khan called for tea and bread to be brought out. Young soldiers, no more than boys, scurried in, balancing trays of tea with chipped Russian glasses and plates of hot, fresh-baked bread. Apples and dates followed, and fresh yogurt. Kris could smell the milk, the tart skin of the apples.
Khan sat beside him, right next to him, on floor cushions before the window. Haddad settled down a respectful distance away.
They spoke gently, chatting back and forth over tea for almost an hour. Khan wanted to know how Kris liked Afghanistan and the Panjshir, the valley Khan had called home for over forty years. He could name every tree, every creek, every fruit that grew. He knew the horse and camel tracks like he knew the twists of veins on the backs of his hands. The land was in his soul, and his bones were made of Afghanistan’s dust, his blood her waters.
Kris spoke honestly, telling Khan he thought the country was breathtaking, the land beautiful, but scarred by conflict and brutality. Haunted by sadness. Khan agreed, and their conversation shifted to what his people needed, and the supplies Kris had brought. Khan grasped his hand and held on, their hands resting on Khan’s knee. The entire time, Haddad sat silently nearby, sipping his tea and calmly watching their back-and-forth in Dari. He couldn’t understand a word.
Finally, Khan shifted to the business of why Kris was down on the front lines. Had George been there, Kris thought, he’d have crawled out of his skin long before, stepping all over Khan’s friendship and relationship-building in his quest to get things done immediately and ferociously.
“We must travel my front lines, yes? Plot positions of all forces?”
“Yes, General.” Haddad passed over the GPS units. “We need exact positions of your forces.”
“This is so your planes can bomb the Taliban? So you can destroy them completely?”
Kris nodded. “We want to make sure none of your people are mistakenly targeted—”
“If you destroy the Taliban, and my people fall while fighting beside you, it will be an honorable death. As long as the Taliban are wiped from Afghanistan in the end. Them, and their al-Qaeda allies,” Khan growled, spitting out his last words. “Those al-Qaeda dogs, they are filth in this land.”
Stunned, Kris sat silent for a moment. Haddad stared at him, eyes burning into Kris’s profile. He’d sensed the change in the conversation, the ebb and flow, though he couldn’t understand the meaning.
“Khan is fine with collateral damage,” Kris breathed, passing back the GPS handheld. “As long as we obliterate the enemy.”
Haddad’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.
Khan let go of Kris’s hand and stood. “Let us begin this survey. The sooner we get it done, the sooner you begin dropping your bombs.”
Khan led them to a convoy of trucks in the courtyard and guided Kris and Haddad to the back of his truck, giving the signal to his convoy to move out. As they drove, Haddad started taking photographs, snapping pictures of the fortifications on the hills, dug into the mountains above, and across the dreary plains toward Kabul.
“Our front lines are not what you imagined, yes?” Khan twisted around in the front seat. For Haddad, he spoke in his heavily accented English. “It never is for you. From the West. Journalists, they come sometimes. They are disappointed. We are no savages, guerilla fighters around campfires, shivering as we starve.” Khan laughed.
On their right, the hills bled upward into the northern mountains. Khan’s soldiers had fortified positions running up the slopes, embedded fighting positions, machine gun placements, and antiaircraft positions. Bunkers ran along the ridgeline. “We own the high ground here. The hills, the mountains. We have built bunkers in place, and have solid firing positions for miles across the Plain. Our lines run down into the Shomali, across Bagram Airfield.”
“With the high ground, you can see all of the Taliban movements in the Shomali?” Kris asked as Haddad took more photos.
“Everything they do, we see. We have tanks and artillery. To keep them in place. If they break out of the Shomali and try to cross our lines—” Khan grinned. “They will be destroyed.”
“You’re organized, you’re armed, you have the high ground. Why do you not attack?”
Khan sighed. The truck bounced and swerved, weaving and climbing along the hillside. He slipped back to Dari. “We hold them in place. But they hold us in place as well. I do not have the men or the arms to mount an attack. I only have the strength to repel their attacks, and hold the Taliban out of the Panjshir.” Khan nodded to Kris. “This is where you come in. Why we have invited the Americans to help us.”
“We have a common enemy, General.”
“The people of Afghanistan have been enemies of the Taliban for years, agha Gul Bahar. But now the Taliban are your enemy, too. The Taliban killed thousands of Afghans for years before they killed your Americans.”
Kris kept his mouth shut. The taste of ash filled his mouth, acrid smoke that seemed to fill his soul. He closed his eyes, rocking sideways as the truck slipped past a boulder in the road.
They pulled to a stop at the base of a winding hillside track. “We go up.” Khan pointed to the steep, narrow track zigzagging past boulders and through low scrub. They’d continue on foot to the crest of the ridge overlooking the Shomali. “The front is there. We will follow the front and plot your maps. Come!”
Kris struggled to keep up with Khan. He slid out on the loose dirt, the rocky soil, falling to his hands to steady himself. They were climbing a mountain, but the base was already at almost ten thousand feet of elevation. He felt like he was sprinting up the Rocky Mountains. Each breath seemed thin, as though there wasn’t enough air left in the world for him to survive.
Haddad followed behind, carrying their pack. Kris heard his grunts, his labored breaths, his soft curses under his wheezes. He wanted to offer to share the load, carry the pack for half of the climb. If he did, he’d die, though. He would tip over backward and slide to the bottom of the hills, or collapse like a tin can under the weight of the pack. He wanted to do more, be more, especially for Haddad. But it was all he could do to cling to the dirt and keep climbing, following behind General Khan, who roared up the mountain like it was his morning walk.
It probably was.
Finally, they arrived at the top. Khan politely waited, looking away as Haddad pulled out his canteen. He offered it to Kris first. Kris refused, and Haddad downed half the bottle as Kris hovered beside him, breathing hard with his hands on his hips. Haddad passed over the canteen and wiped his face, dripping with sweat.
“You okay?” Kris muttered. “That was…”
“Awful.” Haddad chuckled. “That was terrible.” He spat in the dirt, rolled his shoulders. “But I’m good.”
“You shouldn’t have repacked everything. You shouldn’t have had to carry everything up by yourself. I can carry my own weight.”
Haddad’s gaze pierced him, again seeming to look right through him. “I know you can. I didn’t do this because I thought you were weak. I wanted the General to see you right. To treat you the right way.”
“What way is that?”
“As the leader. The man in charge, and the expert. I’m just your muscle here.”
“No rank. Not here, not now.”
Khan called out, “Are you ready to carry on?”
Haddad raised his eyebrows, waiting for Kris.
“Yes, General.” Kris turned away from Haddad and joined Khan. From above, the Shomali was a blurry mess of brown, all the shades of brown Kris had ever seen, from oily tar to dusty, smog-filled air choking the distance. Kabul was a smudge, a rub of dirt on the horizon, surrounded by fallow, empty farmland and desert. Dirty snow rose on the Hindu Kush to the east.
“This is the eastern end of my front lines.” Khan spoke in English and waved over the ridgeline, the Shomali Plain below. “We will follow the front to the west. You will see our positions and those of the Taliban. You can see them now, in fact.”
“Can they see us?”
He waved his hand in the air, a vague, kinda-sorta gesture. “They like to shoot off rounds of artillery if they think strange things happening. They are sometimes lucky.”
Haddad stepped Kris’s back, like he could protect Kris with his muscles, shield Kris from an artillery strike with his presence alone.
Khan led them down the front lines, following a well-worn trail behind his men and their fighting positions. Dug-in foxholes and sandbag-reinforced berms shielded Shura Nazar fighters. “Everything in the Shomali, the Taliban have destroyed. Farms, houses, villages. All gone. They took over the villages outside Kabul. Everyone who used to live there is gone.” He mimed shooting a gun as if he were executing someone. “They use these villages as bases, bunkers. Artillery can hurt them, but to truly fight the Taliban there, you need either close fighting, village by village, or—” He smiled. “Or, your American bombs must fall on them.”
Haddad peered across the plains. “What about al-Qaeda?”
“The Arab fighters are embedded in the Taliban. They keep to their own units. They fight better than the Taliban. They can aim. They are fierce fighters, especially those from Chechnya and Central Asia. They want to die fighting. They love death. The Taliban keep the Arabs out of range of our artillery, in a line that circles Kabul, beyond the outer villages.”
“You can show us where they are?”
“Come. We will begin plotting.” Khan waved them both toward a bunker built into the hillside, behind the fighting positions and beneath the artillery. It was a concrete box with slits for windows, built to withstand Taliban artillery fire. Inside the dark, musty, frigid room, wooden beams, cut from thick trees, propped up the concrete ceiling. Lanterns burned on a central table laid with maps of Afghanistan in Russian and Persian. Khan spread his hands wide. “Let us begin.”
Haddad dropped their pack and Kris pulled out their maps, marked with rough information about the front lines. As Khan read off the positions of his own forces, Kris translated those to their map, marking exactly where Khan’s forces were placed. All three maps were in different scales: American, Persian, and Russian geographic scales all using different measurement systems. After Kris jumped through the conversions and marked Khan’s positions on their map, Haddad input the coordinates into the GPS system, saving each entry as “friendly forces.”
Khan checked each coordinate, approved each input into the GPS.
Every few hours, they moved down the line to the next bunker. In the afternoon, Khan radioed for lunch, and they sat with Shura Nazar fighters, sharing mystery meat roasted over a fire, and apples, rice, and tea. Haddad was drenched in sweat, even though the temperature hovered in the upper thirties. Kris offered to carry something, anything, to lighten the load. Haddad refused.
At the end of the day, they had half of the Shomali Plain mapped. Khan called for them to quit as the sun began to descend, and a hoarse Shura Nazar soldier started crying the azan, the call to prayer. Kris and Haddad stood to the side as Khan joined his soldiers, everyone kneeling and facing southwest to pray.
“Are you a believer?” Kris leaned into Haddad’s side, whispering in his ear. Haddad wasn’t praying with the Shura Nazar.
Haddad hesitated. “I was raised Muslim.”
Kris frowned. “With a name like David, I thought…”
“It’s actually Dawood. I changed it when we moved to America. And I stopped going to the mosque then, too.” He smiled, but it seemed strained, almost forced. “There were too many other things to do, especially in high school.”
Kris chuckled. His own high school years had been a blur of hormones and hot boys, pimples and his gangly body growing in too fast. He’d wanted to inject New York City straight into his veins, live the fast life, but he’d been all mouth and legs and pimply sass. It had taken college to blunt those edges, and then a few years of government grind to force him down even further. A few years of stares and glares and socialization, being ostracized from the herd when he was too loud, too gay, being welcomed when he was conforming just enough. Psychology 101, Pavlovian responses, building a life.
And one attack to shatter his soul.
“So you don’t still believe? Or pray?”
Haddad shrugged. “Feels like a lifetime ago. A different person. You?”
His mamita had dragged him to Catholic mass when he was a boy, licking his hair into place and forcing him to wear those awful shiny shoes that pinched his feet. He tagged along until he was old enough to stay out Saturday nights, just late enough that he could whine and bitch about not wanting to get up early to go to Mass. Mamita had soured at him, her lips pursed like she’d sucked on a lemon, but after three months straight of that act, she never asked him to go with her again. At the time, it had felt like a weight had been pulled from him, like Atlas had set down the world. Not having to pretend, to endure the stares, the whispers, the questions about when he’d bring a sweet girl to Mass with him and Mamita.
He hadn’t had to think too deeply about things like eternal guilt, hellfire, and damnation. He’d flat-out refused to believe he’d burn in hell for liking dick. That was ridiculous.
But murder? Three thousand souls hung from his soul. Their screams shredded his bones, the sobs of families ripped apart drowned him in his nightmares. I’m getting revenge, he’d whisper. I’m avenging you.
It’s not good enough. It will never be good enough. Like a constant refrain, the words echoed up from the nothingness, the pit within him that had opened at 8:46 AM, Tuesday, September 11.
“No. I don’t believe.” Kris crossed his arms. Shook his head. Looked away.
Haddad stared at him. Said nothing.
After prayers and another dinner of mystery meat, fruit, rice, and tea, Khan led them to the soldiers’ sleeping quarters, caves chipped into the hills behind and above the bunker. Some of the Shura Nazar had been living in the caves for years. The sleeping nests looked permanent, and lanterns hung on the rock face. Fire pits dug deep holes into the dirt, dark smoke blackening the cave walls and ceiling.
Kris and Haddad received their own cave, next to the others, but for their private use. Two cushions lay next to a fire pit.
“We will meet again after morning prayers.” Khan, as gregarious as he had been that morning, shook their hands and bade them good night, disappearing to his own cave to rest. Echoes of soldiers’ conversations in soft Dari floated on the twilight.
Haddad dropped their pack with a heavy sigh. He closed his eyes and rolled his neck, groaning.
“Sit down. I’ll unpack.”
For once, Haddad didn’t fight him. He slid down the rock face to the dirt as Kris pulled out their sleeping bags, extra sweaters, and water bottles.
Kris eyed the small cave. The fire flickered, throwing off enough light to scatter glittering shadows into the darkness, an amber glow that seemed to conceal more than illuminate. The cave was warm, enough that they wouldn’t freeze. But when the fire burned low, they would be cold. Very cold.
Should they bracket the fire? Sleeping bags on either side, and try to keep it going all night? Would Haddad insist on staying awake and trading shifts to watch over it?
“We’ll need to sleep side by side. For warmth.” Haddad tugged at one of the cushions, dragging it across the dirt and sliding it beside the other. “We can lay the sleeping bags next to each other. It will help, especially when it drops below freezing.”
Silent, Kris laid their bags out as Haddad directed. He felt Haddad’s gaze on him, heavy, weighted with something. It was almost like Ryan’s stare, but it moved through him in a different way.
He didn’t want to run from Haddad.
Haddad crawled into his sleeping bag and passed out almost immediately. Kris stayed awake, watching the flames flicker on the cave walls, watching the shadows turn to puppets and plays, images dancing in front of his unfocused gaze.
As the soldiers went to sleep, the front lines quieted, a silence that seemed to saturate time. Without the noisy snores of George and Ryan, without Phillip and Jim working on the radios, or the soft chirps and whirrs of the computers in the nerve center humming away, or the groan and chug of the generator, it was as if the world had gone adrift. Three weeks ago, he’d been at Langley in the United States, and now he sat before a fire on the front lines of a war in a corner of the world that wasn’t on most maps. Somewhere, sometime in those three weeks, he’d bungee jumped from the edge of reality, and he was still falling. When would he snap back?
Or was he going to fall forever?
Eventually, Kris slid into his own sleeping bag, his back to Haddad. Haddad had spread out, sprawled on his back, one arm over his head and the other flung wide, as if waiting for someone to crawl in next to him, curl into his side. He’d look amazing with a sweet girl against him, someone kind and gentle who thought he was her Superman. Kris could see a perky American blonde, someone with a button nose and a cheerleader’s outfit from high school in her closet. She’d have porcelain skin and blue eyes, the classic American beauty, the look that had been force-fed to him his entire life as the impossible standard. She’d be someone who scrunched up her nose at him, winked over coffee. Someone who held his hand as they walked through a farmers’ market together, picking out weird fruits and farm-fresh flowers and homemade breads, getting suckered into buying local honey. Haddad would protect her, shield her, be her hero against the world. He’d be gallant, her knight in shining armor.
He’d be like he was with Kris, a personal guardian angel. Except he’d be hers, and she’d know it. And she’d love him for it every day.
Kris lay on the very edge of his cushion, his head just barely resting over Haddad’s outflung arm. He stared at the flames. The heat prickling his eyes was the scorch of the fire, too bright for his eyes. Nothing else.
Haddad’s arm fell across his waist, and his body scooted in behind Kris. Sleeping bags rubbed together, nylon whining as Haddad pressed as close as he could, separated by the vast distance of compressed down. Haddad nuzzled his face into Kris’s neck. His beard, unshaven since Tashkent, tickled Kris’s skin. His breath smelled of black tea and ghee, the Himalayan butter. His snores were soft, gentle puffs of breath that tickled Kris’s ear.
Kris let his soul pour backward, let his body go limp, let everything he was fall into Haddad’s sleeping hold.
Just for this night. Just until dawn.
The scratchy, off-tune wail of the soldier’s muezzin calling the azan woke them as the first ray of sunlight split the horizon and peeked into the cave.
Kris woke bundled in warmth, wrapped in two arms of solid muscle, strength and power that kept the world and darkness at bay. His cheek nuzzled a scratchy beard, a warm face. Safety flowed through him, and a flicker of contentment. Happiness. From his head to his toes, Haddad was pressed against him, spooning him, only their sleeping bags separating their bodies.
His eyes popped open. Shit. At least it wasn’t as awkward as it could have been: their bodies uncovered, pressed together, uncomfortable truths exposed against bellies and thighs. He ached. God, he hadn’t woken with morning wood in weeks. Now, in a cave in Afghanistan, his body was acting up? He tried to edge away, slip from Haddad’s hold.
“Five more minutes,” Haddad mumbled.
Kris froze. Haddad must be dreaming still, lost in his memories of home and the sweet American girlfriend. “What?”
“It’s what I told my mom every morning. When I was in high school.” Kris felt Haddad’s smile, the shift of his beard on the back of his neck. His sleepy breaths, his soft voice.
He shivered. “Sergeant, we need to get up.”
“You can call me David.” Haddad swallowed. “If you want. We usually drop rank when we’re operating in-country. Try to blend in. Use our first names only.”
Kris tried, he really tried, to control his breathing. Keep from hyperventilating. His body ached, straining against melting back into Haddad’s—David’s—hold again. “You can call me Kris, then. Kris with a K.”
“I like your name. It fits you.”
“Do you prefer David or Dawood?”
David was quiet for a long moment. “They’re two different people. I’m David now.” His breath caught, hitching against Kris’s neck. “But I like the way you say it.”
“Joking about my accent?” He was as American as New York City, as Coney Island and heat baking off the asphalt in Lower Manhattan. His mamita’s accent was as thick as the day she’d flown out of Puerto Rico. He, however, had been socialized on cartoons and New York streets. His accent was sass and snark, with just a dusting of his mamita, a touch of island.
“I had an accent when we moved from Libya. The kids made fun of me. I spent all summer getting rid of it.” David’s voice changed, shifted. Went flat and nasal, his sound dropping to the back of his throat. “I was ashamed to be who I was. I had to change everything I could.”
David’s body burned through the sleeping bag, everywhere they were pressed together. They hadn’t moved, not even an inch. “I know what you mean,” Kris whispered.
David’s breath fluttered against Kris’s hair, his jawline. The azan faded, the muezzin’s caterwauling finally finished.
“I think that’s the first bad muezzin I’ve ever heard.” David chuckled. “Usually they’re chosen for their voice.”
“He sounds like he wants to be doing it as much as we want to be hearing him.”
“Let’s win this war so he can give his duties to another muezzin.”
“Sounds good.” Kris laughed and felt David squeeze him, just slightly, an almost hug. He didn’t know if he should hug back, wrap his arms around David’s, hold on to his hold. Or pretend it never happened? What if he was misreading it? What if that was just a stretch, and not a hug at all?
David let go, rolling back and sighing, stretching on the cushions Khan had provided. They were softer than the ground, but lumpier. Kris’s hips ached as he rolled over. “How’s your back?”
“Stiff. But it’s nothing like training. I’m good.” David smiled. “I can go another hundred miles. And you can add another hundred pounds to the pack.”
“Just a little.” David winked, and then peeled himself out of the sleeping bag. They’d slept in their clothes, added layers of warmth, and David readjusted as he stood and stretched.
Kris watched it all, the ache in his body growing. David caught his gaze, blushed, and looked away. “I’m going to check on what’s happening out there.” He slipped out of the cave.
Groaning, Kris dropped his head, rolling over and face-planting into his sleeping bag. His promises to be distant were growing thinner every day. Every moment he spent with David.
It was one more thing to add to the guilt pile, the avalanche of shame rolling through him…
Timestamp: Whisper, Chapter 6, Excerpt
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