Staff Sergeant Walker steps away from the Ridgeback, wipes sweat from his eyes with a dust-grimed bandana, and tries to make sense of the scene before him.
The heat has grown punishing. For a moment it twists the air, so that grey walls and desiccated bushes and sun-scorched faces above dark shalwar kameez all shiver unsettlingly. Walker wipes his eyes again and gradually the shimmering steadies. Yet still, the prospect doesn’t quite add up. Buildings that barely look like buildings; parapets of concrete, of heaped stone, but both an identical shade to the ground beneath and the cliff face behind. The whole place looks like it could be drawn back into the earth at any moment, like it has extracted itself only by some architectural force of will.
“This has a definite air of bullshit,” says Sergeant Ravu from Walker’s shoulder—but he’s careful to keep his voice low.
He has surely seen, as Walker has, the group of black-clad figures in the far background, where the village peters to meet the cliffs. There, a wide opening cleaves the rock: a tunnel evidently closed off until recently by gates of wire mesh and which now stand open.
The men around the tunnel entrance are conspicuous in their sombre outfits, their wrap-around shades, their expensively light-weight body armour. Outside of what remains of the Afghan National Army, most of the boots on the ground these days belong to military contractors: professional soldiers in the narrowest of senses. But though there are a few private bomb-disposal outfits, their numbers are nowhere near sufficient to handle even the relatively unambitious revival of operations that has brought a diminished NATO force back to this land it swore, so recently and so adamantly, it had seen the back of.
Making a snap decision, Walker starts towards them, motioning Ravu to follow and for the rest to remain with the Ridgeback. He doesn’t try to speak to the locals, who are watching impassively from shadowed alleyways and doorways. Behind him he can hear their translator, Aalem, making tentative greetings on his behalf. Walker catches Aalem’s “As-salamu alaykum,” and the customary echo, “Waalaikum as-salaam”—words every soldier in Afghanistan quickly learns.
Peace be with you.
And peace to you also.
The first time he’d been told the meaning, long ago, it had struck Walker as painfully ironic. After a few weeks, when he’d seen more of what Afghanistan could do to bodies and souls, it had seemed merely sad. These days, the words barely register at all. He has said them, heard them, too many times, and still there’s no sign of peace. The news calls this the second Afghanistan War—or, in more crass moments, Afghan Two—but all that shows is how little they understand the country’s endlessly troubled history. Walker is no expert, but he knows he’d need more than his own two hands to tally every conflict this country has seen.
Walker picks a path through the centre of the village, trying to absorb an impression of his surroundings without appearing to. Drawing closer to the contractors, he holds off from speaking, knowing whoever’s in command will identify themselves without needing to be asked. Sure enough, when he and Ravu are half a dozen paces away, one man steps forward. He’s older than the others; there’s grey about his temples and his eyes are that bit harder. “Denard,” the man says. He doesn’t offer to shake hands or, of course, salute.
“I’m Staff Sergeant Walker. This here is Sergeant Ravu. We got your ten-liner.”
The man, Denard, just nods.
“What’re we looking at?” Walker prompts.
“We’ve been tracking a group of insurgents. We think they’re operating from somewhere nearby. Word is, Forensics have traced a bomb factory to around this area too.” Denard motions towards the cave. “In there . . . we’re getting noise off the Vallon, just inside the entrance.” He indicates the metal detector propped against the cliff side, as though to corroborate his story.
But Walker recognises the model, knows it’s a leftover from the last war. Odds are, it wouldn’t have delivered anything meaningful that close to the wire-mesh gates. In any case, he doubts the contractors checked at all; better to call it in, get paid to sit around for a few hours and then let someone else take the risks.
“Okay,” he says. “We’ll take a look.”
He’s already turning away when Denard says, “Only, there’s a problem.”
Walker pauses. “Yeah?”
Walker can see maybe a dozen figures from where he’s standing, all of them men and all of them watching. Yet there’s nothing hostile in their scrutiny and there are no guns on display, as there so easily could be. “What about the locals?”
Denard gives a half shrug. “They say we can’t go in. That it’s forbidden.”
He looks to one of his men, who Walker assumes is their translator. “Yeah,” the man says. “Forbidden.” He looks uncomfortable at the word.
Walker understands. There are plenty of reasons that the locals might not want Denard and his men snooping about in their cave—but to forbid it is something altogether different. Standing orders are to approach anything religious, anything cultural, with the utmost sensitivity. If Denard thinks that’s what this is, of course he would want to make it somebody else’s problem.
Walker notices only then that there are chains on the ground near to one of the gates, which presumably the contractors have cut away. The chains are in good condition, as are the gates; better, in fact, than anything else he’s seen since they arrived. From the way they were cut, it’s clear they were securing the gates from the outside.
“All right,” Walker says. “We’ll talk to them.”
• • • •
“What did I tell you?” Ravu says. “All sorts of bullshit.”
Walker, deep in thought, only grunts his agreement. He has never seen anywhere that looked less like a bomb factory in his life. But there’s something going on, all right. He picked it up as they first walked through the village, and now it’s unmistakable. The atmospherics are all off.
In Afghanistan, you learned fast to watch for the small details. No matter how many tours you had, you could never hope to gain the gut instincts of the locals—and so rather than watch for danger, you watched them instead. If there were kids playing, people working, chances were you were okay. But when the chatter died, when the people melted away . . . then you knew something was wrong.
Here, something is wrong. There are too many eyes on them, not enough movement. Moreover, they’re vulnerable, no support for miles around; the nearest town is Jabal Saraj, but even Jabal Saraj is hardly near. If something goes down, can he rely on Denard? Yet it’s a futile question. If he could rely on Denard then the man would be with them here, right now, instead of hanging around that goddamned cave he’s so preoccupied with.
Ahead, Walker is glad to see that Pieterson had moved the Ridgeback from the centre of the road, pulled it close to one of the larger houses. The rest of Walker’s team—Brimstone 60—are loitering around the entrance, and it’s apparent that somewhere along the line, negotiations have been conducted for them to make this building their temporary headquarters. Walker approves; it has few windows, access to a parapeted roof space and another low wall around its front and side. In other words, it’s defensible—should it come to that.
To Pieterson, Walker asks, “Anything happening?”
Pieterson grins. “Not a thing, Sarge. Deader than disco.”
Walker glances around for their translator, not seeing him asks, “Where’s Aalem?”
Pieterson motions towards the doorway. “He’s talking to the local guvnor.”
“Okay.” To all of them, Walker says, “Make yourselves comfy. But stay sharp.” He indicates with the slightest motion of his eyes the nearest local, perfectly still in the shadows between two ramshackle houses. “Eyes on, all right?”
They don’t need telling. They’ve been in situations like this a hundred times before. Every one of them knows how quickly and how entirely things can go south in Afghanistan. But they’re also short-handed, so a little extra caution can’t be a bad thing.
Inside, the room is simply furnished. There’s a woven mat and a few cushions on the floor, a table and chair in one corner, a stove opposite that. Aalem and another man—dressed much like those silent observers outside, with no obvious mark of authority—are seated upon the mat, deep in conversation. Seeing them enter, Aalem gets to his feet and says, “This man is named Karzai, and he’s chief here.”
Walker and the man, Karzai, exchange greetings. Karzai is in his forties, maybe, but his face is so weathered, so devoid of expression, that it’s difficult to judge. He seems tense, though, in fact radiates tension—and so, for that matter, does Aalem.
Walker addresses the translator in English. “You’ve explained why we’re here?”
Aalem nods uncomfortably. “Yes. But he says—no one goes in the cave. Nothing goes in. No man. No animal. Nothing . . .” He struggles for the right words. “Nothing that thinks.”
Nothing that thinks? Ravu’s prediction is growing more accurate by the minute. “Did he explain why?” Walker asks.
Aalem shrugs. “He won’t.”
Another shrug. “He says he can’t.”
A part of Walker wants to argue. This is some superstition, clearly, or else a failure of translation; either way, he could do without it. Whatever his instincts say, perhaps the cave is being used for building bombs. Or as an arms stash, maybe, or for storing opium ready for transit across the border. Then again, maybe Islam has somehow failed to penetrate to this obscure mountain outpost, and they’re about to defile the holy site of some religion he’s never even heard of.
Walker turns to Ravu. “We’ll send in the Birdeater,” he decides.
Ravu chuckles; nothing about this situation seems to be fazing him. “Are you kidding? That thing’s smarter than half the people in this room.”
Walker smiles; but he knows Ravu isn’t altogether joking. The Hollier EOD-90 Birdeater represents the very cutting edge of robotic bomb disposal. They are on strict instructions to give the machine a work-out in the field, on equally strict instructions to return it without so much as a scratch.
Then again, the Birdeater is hard to scratch. He’s seen one take a direct hit from a twenty kilogram device and walk away; blow a Birdeater up and it might bounce around, but chances are it will not break. However, all the new wave of bomb-disposal robots can take a punch; what sets the Birdeater apart, what Ravu is referring to, is not what it can withstand but what it can do. The first time Walker saw it in action was the first time he realised he might one day be looking for a new career. That was the day he watched a robot detect and dispose of three EODs of varying design in a little over thirty minutes, with no human intervention whatsoever.
So, yes, the Birdeater is smart. But not, he likes to think, quite as smart as he himself. At any rate, he won’t be using it in that capacity today; in user-operated mode it’s only a tool, though still an extraordinary one.
“Go get it,” Walker tells Ravu. “I want him to see it.”
Ravu steps out and a minute later is easing through the narrow doorway, his silhouette bulked by the odd-shaped pack he’s now wearing and the thing like a particularly ugly briefcase he carries in one hand. Ravu puts the briefcase on the table, carefully shrugs off the backpack and lays it on the ground.
Immediately, with a whisper of servers, the backpack gets up.
Now it has eight spindly legs, which have unfolded from beneath it. It looks less like a spider than its name implies, but still more insect than machine. Walker clicks a latch on the briefcase and flips its lid up, revealing a screen and keyboard. As he does so, the screen flickers to life, and abruptly he can see a crystal-clear view of his own back, the table and the console, the image diminishing in endless repetition: the view from the Birdeater’s camera.
He turns back to Aalem and to Karzai, who’s watching the contraption that squats in the centre of the room with unabashed horror. “Explain to him that it’s a robot,” Walker says. “Explain that we won’t step foot inside without their permission. We just want to have a look around; check there’s nothing going on here that shouldn’t be.”
Aalem rattles off a half-dozen sentences, using conspicuously more words than Walker did—and then fielding objections, one after another. After a couple of minutes, seizing on a lull in the debate, Walker adds, “Make sure he understands that either the robot goes in or we do.”
Aalem hesitates, and then nods. When he speaks again, he does so only briefly, and the tone of his voice has changed. Karzai’s response is equally concise. Then Aalem says to Walker, “He asks—this is a machine?”
Walker sighs inwardly. Has it really taken five minutes to establish so little? “And you told him, yes.”
“I did,” Aalem agrees. “Then he asks—it can’t think?”
“It’s a machine,” Walker emphasises. Yet something about the half-truth snags at his conscience.
“Then,” Aalem says, “he agrees. But just the machine.”
“Just the machine,” Walker confirms. Then to Ravu, “Go get it ready.”
Ravu hoists the Birdeater by its straps, hauls it onto his back; the legs fold back into their inactive positions and once again the robot is a shapeless mass of metal and plastic. Ten minutes later—time in which the three of them stand in uncomfortable silence—Ravu is back. “Ready to go,” he declares.
Walker wants to be glad. An hour more and maybe they’ll be done here. If there’s nothing inside, or if it isn’t explosives, Denard and his men can take over and Brimstone 60’s part is played.
Yet the doubt hasn’t gone away. It can’t think? An absurd question, and his reply was such a small lie, hardly untrue at all. However, as Walker turns back to the screen—which now shows a slightly pixelated representation of the cave mouth, the sunlight barely softening its darkness—he finds that it still troubles him.
• • • •
There is metal inside the tunnel entrance. But it isn’t mines.
The objects are each about a foot tall, black under the Birdeater’s flashlight—and when Walker eventually manages to manoeuvre it to a position from which he can see their fronts, utterly grotesque. With their design of faces piled one upon another, some human, some animal, all flowing into each other, they make him think of miniature totem poles. They’re evidently carved from stone, but perhaps there’s metal in the charms draped about their necks, enough to set off the Birdeater’s sensitive detectors.
Walker looks to Karzai, sees that he too is watching the screen. His face remains expressionless.
So Walker was right: a religious site, some ancient holdover surviving in this isolated place. No wonder they’re so secretive. He would like to leave this here, to respect these peoples’ wishes. Then again, there’s still the slender chance that this is all a clever bluff. If only for the sake of the report he’ll have to write, he needs to be sure.
Walker turns the Birdeater around, careful to stay well clear of any of the statues. Ahead the tunnel contracts, and after a minute he finds himself wondering how a human could even navigate it. At the very least, they would have to crawl on hands and knees. Yet there’s clear evidence that the passage was manmade, dints and scratches in the stone that might be chisel marks and, occasionally, wooden props. Walker is careful to steer around those too, lest he inadvertently cause a cave-in.
The Birdeater is agile but not fast. Time ticks by slowly, seconds to minutes. The passage must be very long. Walker’s eyes ache with the effort of concentration. He has almost convinced himself that there’s no end when finally he reaches it: when the tunnel opens without warning into a cave.
The space is small, smaller than the room they’re in. He thinks at first that the only exit is the one the Birdeater arrived by, until he tilts the camera and sees the well at the centre. Its perimeter, a ring of weathered stone, is flush with the sandy ground. There are symbols carved there, unlike anything Walker has seen: loops and whorls and scratches that hint at meaning.
Karzai says something. Long seconds pass before Aalem translates. Then he murmurs, “He says, you’ve seen enough. Now you go.”
Walker ignores them both. This isn’t about his report anymore; he needs to know. He walks the Birdeater to the very edge of the well, flinching at the transmitted tip-tap of its segmented legs upon the stone. Then he tilts the camera further. The well must be very deep. The Birdeater’s high-powered torch can’t probe to its bottom, barely infringes on the darkness there.
The darkness . . .
The darkness moves.
Karzai speaks. Aalem translates. “He says—the wave. The black wave.” Aalem scrunches his features, perplexed, afraid. “That’s what he says.”
The darkness is rising. It moves in fits and starts. When it’s motionless, it’s hard to believe that it’s there at all. Karzai speaks again. This time Aalem makes no effort to interpret.
The darkness is close to the Birdeater’s camera now. It has no shape. Then it does. A face—something animal. It forms and then unforms. It moves closer—moves very close. Another face, black against black. It is a dog. It is a snake. It’s a locust. A sheep. Then something Walker doesn’t recognise. A fish. A camel. A mix of both. Snake-dog. Insect-sheep. Nothing he has ever seen or ever wants to see again. A rat. A fly. A human face. His own?
Yes. He’s looking into a black mirror. He doesn’t like what he sees there.
Walker thinks that maybe he could keep looking at the image on the screen forever, that he might never tear his eyes away. But then he realises something is happening in the room. Something crucial has changed. The atmospherics . . . the atmospherics are all off.
When Walker drags his gaze from the screen, the man, Karzai, has a gun in his hand: a pistol, antique-looking, maybe something the Russians left behind. Bizarrely, he’s pointing the gun not at Walker, not at Ravu or Aalem, but at the console. He is repeating words that Walker can’t understand.
Walker puts his hands in the air. It’s a show for Ravu and Aalem as much as for Karzai. It’s meant to say, let’s everyone keep calm.
“Tell him there’s no need for this,” he says to Aalem. But Aalem is close to panic. Walker tries his best to catch his eyes and hold them. “Tell him,” he says again. “Tell him we can talk. Tell him, I want to understand.”
Aalem speaks, then Karzai, not moving the gun at all. Aalem begins to translate before Karzai has even finished, so that abruptly the two of them are speaking in tandem: “He says, you don’t need to understand. You’ve seen. Now you know. Now you have to leave. This is their duty, not yours. The time isn’t yet. You must leave and not come back.”
Walker wants to look back at the screen. He doesn’t like to think what might be happening there, out of his field of vision. “We can’t just . . .”
“He says, you go. Go now. Take your machine. Never come back.”
“No, listen,” Walker insists. “It’s not so simple. We can’t just . . .”
Then the gun goes off.
Walker sees it and he hears it, the explosion so loud that it seems to suck the very air from the room; silence follows in its wake. He closes his eyes—for just a moment, it seems. He opens them again and time has passed. He’s on the ground, he realises, on hands and knees, but he can’t say why. Slowly the silence is dissolving, first into a static hum and then to other sounds. There’s shouting. Some of it is inside the room and some, he thinks, is coming from outside. There’s another shot, the rattle of small arms fire, the sudden, unmistakable roar of the Ridgeback’s heavy machine gun.
Walker looks for Karzai. He’s on the ground, and Ravu is standing over him, and there’s blood in splashes and smears across the wall and floor.
Walker looks at the screen. The Birdeater is moving. It shouldn’t be, can’t be, but it is. It’s moving back through the passage, and he knows that the half circle of yellow before it represents the tunnel mouth. Yet it’s hard to make out distinctly, because something—like flies, like fog—is swirling about it.
He gets to his feet. Ravu is saying something to him, but he can’t hear it. He walks out of the doorway. He sees Anders first: dead, the whole side of his head demolished, its contents flowering across one flank of the Ridgeback. Dent is cowering in the corner where the walls meet, his eyes gigantic with fear. Pieterson is firing over the parapet wall: short, controlled bursts, just like they’re taught. But she looks around when she hears Walker behind her, and mouths words.
Walker ignores her. He steps out into the street. Perhaps the firefight has lulled or perhaps the bullets simply choose not to strike him. Walker doesn’t know which, or care. He needs to see—to understand. There before him is the tunnel mouth. There, crouched on its periphery, is the Birdeater. And all around, like fog, like tar, what has come with it.
And there are Denard and his men. They are on the ground, but they’re moving. Not like people moving, though; it’s as if they are puppets and something is tugging, without order or reason, at their strings.
Denard is first to his feet. He hoists himself up, and through every instant it looks as though he’ll tumble back. But moment by moment, his confidence grows, his motions grow surer. At first, Walker mistakes the black depths of his eyes for sunglasses, until he sees the shades in the dirt, cleanly snapped in two. There is no way there could be an expression in that swirling darkness, yet Walker thinks he sees pride: pride in making arms and legs work as arms and legs should.
A part of him wants to run. Another part understands how futile that would be. He knows the truth now, sees it clearly, as though the permutations of that whirling tenebrosity are a code that he can now read. Soon, very soon, there will be nowhere to run to. The black wave, still for a thousand, thousand years, has risen.
Now it begins to fall.
Instead, Walker waits—for Denard, for what lives in him. And as he waits, Walker’s mouth forms silently around a greeting: As-salamu alaykum.
For here, now, peace has come.