Cadmus and Ahmad Shah trekked up the hill towards the black encampment. The stars were out and the moon peered over the edge of a cloud. Up on the mesa, they came before a large tent, like the war pavilion of some general in ancient times, its black canvas fluttering in the breeze. It was the largest among a number of other tents. The light of campfires shone in the distance, the forms of men sitting at them indistinctly visible. Armed guards stood at the tent. To one side sat a Hind-D gunship they had captured from the Russians, its camo paint scoured by sand and wind.
They paused, Ahmad Shah fingering the gun at his belt. He did not look at the gunship or the rest of the encampment, but only the black tent. He said to Cadmus in Pashto, “I’ve waited to meet this man.”
“Now you will.”
Ahmad Shah’s eyes were glassy, transfixed. He licked his lips. Cadmus watched him for a long moment with hands on hips. Cadmus had seen this look on many faces before now. The anticipation of the legendary. He knew Ahmed Shah was both eager and afraid to go inside.
As they approached, Ahmed Shah made to surrender his gun and his knife to the sentry, a Pakistani boy of sixteen in full military fatigues. The boy barely glanced at him. Cadmus took Ahmed Shah by the shoulder and led him on.
“That won’t be necessary.”
Ahmed Shah looked at him briefly, then nodded his understanding. “Of course.” He was sliding his knife back in its leather as they ducked into the tent. Ahmed Shah looked all around the inside of the tent as they entered, as if expecting some threat, but there was only a long camp table with a lamp and a set of old maps on it, the corners held down by coffee cups.
Cadmus’ father sat at the table, sipping from a silver thermos. He wore his old brown coat over a camo shirt, an Afghan scarf tucked under his chin. His beret and sunglasses were on the table before him. Cadmus couldn’t help but smile at the sight.
Father was in conversation with another American, a fat man in a bomber jacket. The fat man looked up at Cadmus, squinting through glasses, then nodded to Father and left the tent.
That left the three of them alone. Father rose, smacking his beret on his thigh, and squashed it over his thinning blonde hair. He stood to his full six feet and looked at them.
“The one who will bring the warning,” he said at length. Then he smiled. “And my son Cadmus.”
He came around the table with his hands in his coat pockets, peering at Ahmed Shah in the dim lamplight. “Nice hat.”
Ahmad Shah nodded and pointed mirthlessly at Cadmus’ fathers own hat.
“Yes. My hat, too, is nice.” Father put his hands behind his back and grinned at them.
Cadmus grinned back.
“You said I bring warning.” Ahmad Shah looked startled, as though he was just realizing important things were already being said to him.
“You will try,” said Father. “Pray don’t think about it for now. My son showed you the weapon.”
Ahmad Shah nodded. “These are what America has given to Gulbuddin’s men already.” Then he scowled at Father. “You should have given them to me.”
“There are some who agree with you.”
“And you? What do you think?”
Father raised an eyebrow and smirked. He turned aside and moved to a set of four wooden crates. He pried off the top of one of the boxes and showed what was inside. A stinger missile launcher and six projectiles, snuggled in among straw and crumpled pieces of newspaper from Islamabad.
Ahmad Shad went to the missile launcher and ran a lean hand over it.
“Another stinger,” he said eventually.
“Four more,” Cadmus put in.
Ahmad Shah nodded at him, but he looked unimpressed. His dark eyes narrowing. He flattened one of the pieces of newspaper onto his hand. “From Pakistan.” His lip curled.
Father went to the corner of the tent and hefted a large black document case. “By way of Pakistan, the weapons are yours to do with what you wish.” He set the case on the table with a thump.
Cadmus grinned with a twinkle in his eye. He crossed his arms and slouched back. “I think this is the best part.”
Ahmad Shad looked dubiously at him, and then the case. “Money?” he guessed, correctly.
Father circled back around the table and fell heavily into his chair again, lifting his booted feet onto the table. He took a cigar from his breast pocket and lit it, and smoked. The point of the cigar flared orange in the darkness.
Ahmad Shah went to the case and opened it and looked inside. He rifled through the bills for a moment, grimly. “I’ll have to get this changed.”
“Well,” Cadmus said. “You’re welcome. For the million dollars.”
Ahmad Shah sighed and looked at Cadmus. “You have my thanks. Truly. But I did not come here just for money and weapons. Things which should have long ago been mine anyway.” He paused for a long time, seeking words. “You are the man they say controls destiny.”
Smoke coiled up from Father’s cigar, filling the tent with its heavy smell. He reached and turned off the lamp, leaving them in abrupt darkness. And then, after a moment of blindness, Cadmus saw the cigar burning hypnotically alone.
“Fate…” said Father. There was a long silence. Then he said, “You don’t know what to ask for, because you think you might get it. When power is in reach, you don’t know what to use it for. What you want me to do is to talk. But words are just one of the things you can place out into the world. Some might think building the future is like building a tower, stone by stone. But no. Time is like water. Each stone we try to place sinks through the surface and into the past, leaving a ripple. It’s not the stones we should concern ourselves with, but the ripples they make.”
Ahmad Shah waited. Then he said, “And the stones you have put in the river? Your words. Your weapons and your money. What ripples will they make?”
Father said, “Every deed we do and word we speak changes the future. The stones we cast will win the war and drive the Soviets out. God willing.”
Ahmad Shah breathed deeply. “God willing.”
Father turned the light back on. Ahmad Shah was standing with his eyes closed, whispering a silent prayer. With that their meeting was done. They arranged to transport the stingers and Ahmad Shah took the money in his hand. Before he left, he clasped Cadmus’ hand and slapped his shoulder, staring fiercely into his eyes.
“Another time, my friend.”
“As you say,” Cadmus agreed.
When he was gone, Cadmus spoke to his father in English. “Did you lie to him?”
Father glanced up with an eyebrow lifted. “Eh?”
“About winning the war.”
“Oh. No. But the war is nothing. Just a stepping stone to further wars. Winners and losers matter little in this. And I still think of him more as the one who brings the warning than the one who wins the war.”
Cadmus nodded glumly. He knew better than to ask too much about fate. When Father was in this state, he seemed to think every moment in history was happening right then, in the moment.
“Father,” Cadmus said presently. He crossed his arms.
“Yes, my son.”
“I think it’s time I took a son of my own. There’s a boy in the village—”
Father looked up at him with a broad smile. “I looked forward to this day. Ever since I took you from your mother.”
Cadmus went on. “The boy’s parents were killed by the Soviets. He can shoot a gun. He is strong for his age. One day he could be one of us.”
Father gazed into the distance. “He will be.” Nodding, smiling. “You will give him his name, and teach him as I taught you and your brother. He will be a great warrior like you.”
“Thank you,” Cadmus said, sagging with relief. Part of him had expected rejection, disbelief. He was only twenty himself. Young to be a father. But he felt as though he had lived the life of a dozen men.
Father stood and came around the table to embrace him warmly. Cadmus wrapped his father tightly with his arms and thought on the life that he had been given. “Thank you so much for everything.”