The Russian MI-24A gunship raced low over the desert, Captain Yuri Amelin at the helm. He goosed the throttle and eased up on the nose a bit as they crested a ridge and descended into a shadowy valley. As quick and as low as possible. He could almost feel the outcroppings on his belly. But he looked to the horizon, not the ground. Anything else would land you in the dirt. And every shadow felt like it held a spook with a rocket-propelled grenade.
He hollered into his headset to his flight crew, “Now tell me again about this fucking guy.”
The cargo technician, Orlov, answered him. That was his official title, though the only cargo he was dealing with was one skinny Afghani and his misshapen hat. Orlov said hesitantly, “I don’t think he knows any Russian.”
“What?” Amelin raged into his microphone.
The co-pilot, Fedkin, laughed.
There was a moment when he knew positively that he wasn’t going to crash into anything, so he stared angrily over his shoulder into the cargo area. Orlov was standing over the tiny Afghani, seated, holding the rail over his head and hollering to make himself understood. The poor man was shaking his head, shrugging and waving his hands all at the same time.
“Ask him where the mujahideen are,” Amelin said into his mic.
“What do you think I’ve been asking him; where the pussy is?”
“Ask him that after,” said Fedkin.
“You know some Pashto words,” Amelin said. “Make use of them.”
“I only know how to say swear words that one kid taught me.”
There was a moment’s pause but then Orlov came back on the headset, “I think he gets it. But how is this poor devil going to tell us where to shoot? He doesn’t know any Russian.”
“They cocked this up,” Fedkin was saying with a shake of his head. “I thought the last two spotters were bad, but at least they were Russians. Now they can’t even give us that. And we’ll get in shit if we go back to base with all our rockets left.”
“We can unload on a hillside somewhere,” Orlov said presently. “I heard some guys joking about that.”
Meanwhile Amelin’s brain had been ticking away. “Shut up you idiots,” he said, adjusting the mic before his lips. “He can point. He’s got fingers, right? Show him the map.”
They flew on in silence for a moment. Then Orlov said, “Ok, let me show you.”
He came and squeezed through the access door and held out the map before Amelin’s face. An otherwise featureless spot on the map in the elbow of a mountain chain, circled with pencil.
“That’s far. He pointed there?”
“Yes, I said ‘mujahideen’ and showed him the map. And he pointed there and said ‘mujahideen.’ Then in Pashto I think I said ‘mujahideen shitters’ and he grinned and said the same thing back to me and laughed.”
“You made a friend, Corporal Orlov,” Amelin said. “You truly have a gift with words.”
“That is probably more reliable information than anything from those KGB spotters,” Fedkin pointed out.
Amelin said, “Or maybe that’s the village of a man who stole his wife or his donkey or something.”
“Anything for our new friend,” Orlov said. “As long as all these rockets get fired.”
Two hours later they were behind a craggy brown ridge, parallel to it. Orlov was waking up their Afghani spotter as Amelin let the chopper drift up over the ridge, gazing out over the broken ground between them and the village.
“He’s gotta point to the building,” Amelin said. “Where the spooks are. There’s a lot of buildings in that village.”
A moment’s pause and the Afghani man was leaning through into the cockpit, gazing around at all the switches and controls with wide bright eyes, his oddly white teeth shining in his jaw. His face was so gaunt it looked like someone had grabbed it just below his cheekbones and squeezed it in a vise. Amelin smelled his body odour as he lifted his arm and pointed through the canopy at the village. He was nodding excitedly.
“Well, he definitely wants us to blow up something in there,” Amelin said. “I’m going in closer. Keep him up here in the cockpit so he can point.”
The helicopter lifted over the ridge and Amelin dropped the nose a bit and accelerated. The Afghani started backing out from the cockpit but clearly found himself stopped by Orlov as he squawked something in his language.
“Shh, it’s OK, you little fucker,” said Orlov in Russian.
Amelin felt a crosswind come in and bite into their trajectory and he swore. They descended down the slope to make their pass, the tail kicking out more than he would have liked. “You fucking bitch, don’t spin,” he whispered to the MI-24, known for doing exactly that. “You whore, now is not the time.”
He levelled off nice and hot at eighty knots, with the whole wretched pile of brown huts filling the canopy, scarcely easy to tell apart from the rocks around them.
“UB-32s armed and ready,” said Fedkin tersely. “Give me target information.”
Amelin was grunting and pointing at various of the little huts with one hand and flying with the other, yelling ‘mujahideen.’ Eventually the Afghani’s fearful confusion seemed to turn to understanding and he too was pointing.
“Ok, that one there, Fedkin, I’ve lined you up. With the broken archway.”
There was a screech interspersed with short sharp blasts as Fedkin let loose a cloud of six or seven of the rockets. Two of them tracked just in front of the building and send up a cloud of dust, and the rest impacted the little house right in the front wall, folding it in on itself, sending pieces of rock tumbling and rolling.
The Afghani had his hands on his ears, and when he opened his eyes, he stared in disbelief and started shouting and gesticulating wildly, waving them away.
“Oh. Not that one, Fedkin. I think he meant the one with the two windows, do you see—”
Another howl of departing rockets. Most of them struck the house Amelin had described, but the last one shot wide of the mark and blew out the bottom half of a decrepit bell-tower, which slowly toppled.
“Ok, he’s pointing that we should not have blown up that tower, I think,” Orlov said.
“There’s no pleasing this guy.”
“This is not working. Let’s level it. You know if there’s mujahideen here, it doesn’t matter what we shoot anyway. They’ll come out of the fucking woodwork like cockroaches—”
Amelin swung the bottom of the MI-24 down to the floor and heaved it around for another pass, sending up a cloud of dust that he planned to cleverly use to avoid ground fire if there was to be any.
And in fact just at that moment Orlov screamed at the top of his lungs, “RPG!”
Amelin jerked the flight stick left and hammered both the throttle and the rudder as one, sending the back end of the chopper sliding left while gaining altitude and corkscrewing the nose about. A reflex action. The horizon swung nauseatingly past until he saw the puff of white smoke which propelled an as-yet invisible missile. He pulled the stick as hard left as he dared and then pitched it forwards to dive out of the way. Then Orlov said, “It turned!” and Amelin’s blood ran cold.
“Shit, fuck, shit, fuck, a million shits,” Amelin said as he hammered the IRCM with his fist.
The insane maneuver he had tried to pull had already sent them into a spin. Now the MI-24 shot bright red flares out across the desert, amid wreaths of pale smoke. The missile arced in, diverting at the last second to track one of their flares instead. It stabbed past their tail with a sound like the devil himself screaming, and just as Amelin breathed a sigh of relief, it struck a rock and detonated. A cloud of dust and rock enveloped them, and he felt the tail-rotor break, the foot-pedals slamming first one direction and then the other. They spun out of the sky and the ground came up to smack them. Amelin sort of expected everything to go black right as they hit the ground, but instead, he felt the impact in every single part of his body. Pain seemed to come from every angle and he was out of his chair, tumbling, striking every surface in the cockpit seemingly at once, apparently breaking every bone he had. Then the chopper settled and stopped, and Amelin was on his back staring out through the cracked canopy. What part of the canopy was it? He couldn’t tell and he couldn’t move his head more than an inch. Only then – and this seemed very unfair to him – only then did everything go black.
The next time Amelin’s eyes opened, he was out in the open air and everything still hurt. But it was the sick, dull pain that had had time to set in. Not the fresh, startling, immediate pain that was more shocking than anything else. This was a grievous throb that ran from his neck to his toes and made him afraid for his life.
Amelin blinked up at the bright noontime sun. He was sweating heavily. Fifty in the shade, they said, and this wasn’t the shade. He felt hands upon him, dragging him, rocks digging into his back. Pulse pounding in the back of his neck, the taste of blood in his mouth. They let him fall against the side of a boulder and he sat there, head lolling sideways. It was too bright and he was too dazed to really make sense of anything. And the pain was like a second noonday sun that had been born inside his head.
A man carrying a huge rocket-launcher was descending from an outcropping of rock. The barrel was still smoking as he lifted it above his head with one well-muscled arm and got a cheer from many mouths. Amelin swallowed and moved his head around as best he could. Looked like the whole village was here to celebrate. Women, he saw. Children. He swallowed again and thought of the rockets they’d stabbed into the homes here.
The man with the rocket launcher got closer. He wore a red scarf wrapped under his chin and over his head. Dark skin but clean-shaven, not like the Afghanis usually were. He wore a pair of aviator sunglasses, like an American would wear. And he was tall, and well fed. Amelin thought he was probably not from here.
Orlov was nestled against a rock next to Amelin. Amelin didn’t notice this until the other Russian jumped to his feet brandishing a Makarov pistol, and the man with the rocket launcher shot him in the head without breaking stride or losing his bright wide grin. Orlov looked up at the sky and collapsed backwards almost gracefully.
The man with the rocket launcher spun the pistol he’d used to kill Orlov almost jauntily on his finger and put it back in a hip holster. He grinned around at the assembled crowd with infectious enthusiasm and said some words in Pashto or Dari that got laughter and applause. He tossed off the rocket launcher to one of the mujahideen standing nearby and lifted both arms like an actor accepting applause at a play.
He stopped before Amelin and spoke with American-accented Russian. Fairly good Russian.
“I told them, do not fear, the hero is here!” said the man. “But probably it looks different from your point of view.”
Amelin had a whole speech planned out, but he only got as far as “Fucking—” before he ran out of breath.
The man laughed. “I’m Cadmus. I am the hero who vanquished a mighty dragon. What’s your name?”
“Comrade Amelin,” said Cadmus seriously, and somehow managed to avoid sounding condescending. “I had to shoot this guy here. Your co-pilot died in the crash. The local they beheaded for treason. You’re the last one alive.”
A group of swarthy bearded mujahideen had been slowly creeping up from behind and now they were within spitting distance, glowering down at Amelin from over Cadmus’ shoulder.
Cadmus leaned in conspiratorially and half-whispered, “They want to behead you too. But they’ll let you live on one condition.”
“Yes,” he wheezed.
“You have to convert to Islam. Giving up your atheist ways and all. If that’s unacceptable—”
Amelin wanted to say, ‘Fuck yes, you asshole. Get me a Koran right now and I’ll convert fast as you like. I’ve found God. I will retire to this village and grow a big beard and all.’ But all he could get out was. “Yes.”
Cadmus rubbed his hands together and looked over his shoulder at the spooks and said a few words. There was general consternation. Some cocked heads. Murmuring, crossing of arms.
Cadmus turned back to him. “Are you sure? They were fairly keen on beheading you.”
One of the mujahideen leaned in closer and muttered a few words in Cadmus’ ear.
“Ah,” Cadmus said. “He says that there are a lot of words you have to say and he doesn’t think you can do it. And you’re probably dying anyway.”
“No,” Amelin said, trying to sound strong and healthy as blood started to run out of his nose.
Cadmus shrugged again. He folded back his scarf revealing short, straight black hair. A round face, youthful and handsome. He was definitely not Afghani. He ran his hand through his hair and looked up at the mujahideen man who’d been speaking to him. He stood up and they had a brief conversation. Then both of them shrugged at each other. Hands were suddenly under Amelin’s armpits and on his ankles, and they were carrying him away. And when he realized they were going to spare him he wanted to say ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ but he couldn’t.
Cadmus shielded his eyes with a hand and watched them take the Russian up to the village. He turned to Ahmed-Shah and spoke in Pashto. His Pashto wasn’t as good as his Russian, but it was coming along nicely. “That man will die.”
Ahmed-Shah shrugged again. “Whatever God wills.”
Cadmus turned back and saw that the men of the mujahideen were all over the downed Hind chopper, stripping it of anything they deemed useful. “That thing won’t fly again,” Cadmus said, perhaps needlessly. “Take the guns and whatever you can. The doors if you can. They make good cover. And try to hide the wreckage. You don’t want the Soviets taking revenge.”
Ahmad-Shah looked to the horizon. “We don’t fear Soviet revenge.” He looked at the Stinger missile launcher in his hands. “With this, no matter how many annoying insects they send to sting us, we can sting them in return.”
Cadmus laughed. “Well said.”
A group of children came up giggling to them, finished with looting the corpses. A little girl wore a gold wristwatch with some Cyrillic writing on it. Cadmus put his hand on her head and knelt down before the children. He looked at an eight-year old boy with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder and said, “You want to grow up to be like me, don’t you? A hero?”
“A hero who fights dragons,” the little girl said.
“That’s me,” said Cadmus, lifting her in his right arm and pointing his left fist at the sky. He spun her around. “They are big. And they have loud voices. And they crash down so scary. But nobody is as quick and as smart as Cadmus, and they can’t kill me, and I sting them.”
Cadmus leapt up on a rock and looked down at the other kids. All beaming up at him. Except the boy with the rifle.
“One day,” Cadmus said, holding the boy’s eyes. “You’ll all be like me.”