The wind blew unsteadily up the valley. Not wind, really, more… at home you would call it a breeze. Here, in a place that felt like the geographic center of Afghanistan (and almost was), a word like breeze, with its pleasant freight of spring days and sailboat play, felt out of place. And somehow breeze was a day word, not right for a moonless night. So what’s the right word?
Absence of the right word left an abscess in the mind, an irritating hole in the sentence that none of the test words that came to mind seemed to patch properly.
There was a rustle in the night, a deer in the leaves, another soul in the sheets; but there were no leaves here, where shortsighted, needy humanity had denuded the landscape of every inflammable root and branch in winters forgotten by every living thing. There were no deer, although the King’s hunting and fishing preserve at Ajar was nearby, nothing but a sole, elderly, dog-loyal caretaker had made even a futile effort to preserve it. There were no sheets, for it was time to be on watch, and no one was looking out for the souls of the whole task force but one man and the ANA kandak’s two dogs, one in their main camp, and one in the observation post on the stony summit to the east. To be sure, the Afghans were supposed to post a watch as well, but judicious night-vision use had told all of us all we needed to know about that: it was a responsibility honored more in the breach. The outpost’s vicious, abused mastiff was what they counted on to wake them, whether the approaching threat was the ancient enemy, angular Pathans with ready grins and robust knives with t-reinforced spines, or US SF who would chide them for the lack of security.
It was hard to generate enthusiasm for the grunt work of security in a race that accepts having one’s throat slit by night as just one of the breaks — “if allah wills it,” with a shrug. So security was a responsibility that devolved, de facto, on the Americans, one ODB and one to three ODAs from different Groups, states, and cultures.
The diversity of the Americans melted to insignificance against the foreignness of the natives. They were the dies that forged us as a unit.
They weren’t bad, and some of them were outstanding fellows, those Afghans. But the most westernized and cosmopolitan of them was very different from us. We loved them, but as with the Montagnards, just when you thought they understood them something happened that made you realize you would never understand them.
Even if you died for them.
And something was moving. It was rustling. It made no sense.
Time for a 360º scan with the NVGs. As high priority as we were, we still had either-or night vision googles or weaponsights. Most of us passed up the PVS-14 for PVS-7 goggles, not the absoute state of the art, but for a B-Team averaging well over 20 years’ service, who all remembered when you had one miserable PVS-5 per team and were glad to get it, we were rolling in clover, night-vision-wise.
So what was making that noise? It was closer. Is there some cover that a lean, turbaned warrior could be slinking his way through? Was there — –
“My face! Get it off my face! My –“ and the scream ended in a strangled gurgle.
An alien on the face? OK, this is a dream, aliens are not real, you’re not in Afghanistan, you’re awake now. Hell of a way to wake up and what is still attacking your face?
Ah. Good morning, Small Dog. Thought your human had slept in long enough, did you?
You would think the critter would know by now that tongue-in-nostrils is not the way said human likes to transition from REM sleep to fully awake. You’d think.