Prologue: A Field Test
One of thousands performed during the longest war in U.S. history. An irresistible opportunity for assessing the potential effectiveness of newborn policy and products in model test environments, thus fulfilling the primary tenet of all military research and development: What hasn’t been tested doesn’t work. Everything, from new camouflage and body armor to computer-driven bullets and laser cannons directly out of Star Wars. Recon systems, satellites, advanced combat rifles, pesticides, cold-storage warehouses, radio sets, and lamps all had their turn. This field test, from a purely scientific standpoint, was no different.
The two helicopters were stealth-modified Black Hawks on loan from the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR), an airborne Army unit known as the Night Stalkers. They swept over the village, silent and veiled as buoyant shadows caught in the valley’s cold predawn winds. The target had been rated mostly empty. Mostly enemy. And, suitably remote.
As the helicopters passed overhead, one of the passengers, a man the Night Stalker crew had never seen before and would never see again,
dropped a canister no bigger than a Pepsi can into the village square. Hell, it was a Pepsi can, and it bounced and skittered in a dozen different directions before settling against a mud-lined furrow running along the village’s lone dirt road. The Black Hawks were halfway into the next valley before the handful of village watchmen even thought to shoot after them.
The gunfire awoke Tahir al-Umari, who rose slowly and grumbled at his stirring children to remain quiet as he pulled on sandals. Outside, there was random shouting and dogs barking. In the doorway, with arms crossed and tilted forward enough to see down the path some, he called across to a neighbor who’d struck a similar pose. “U.S.,” the man replied simply. Tahir nodded, rubbed at his nose in thought as the soft winds off the adjacent black mountain slipped down, cool across his face. He was one of a dozen families who still lived in the outlying village, the rest having vanished over the last ten years. He and his sons now owned and worked eleven acres, and nine were planted with poppy. Allah willing, when the others departed, he would plant wheat and saffron again. One day soon. Now, perhaps, it didn’t matter. The Americans would come back or send the Afghan narcotics police to burn the fields. He’d heard they possessed some sort of virus that could kill an entire crop in hours. He thought, I will lose everything. He thought, Maybe this is a good thing. And, Now maybe the Taliban will move on to some other place.
Automatic fire from the center of the village. The distinct clacking of AK-47s. Then excited voices became screams.
Tahir and his neighbor locked eyes across the distance between them, both with hands half lifted in confusion. A raid by the Americans? The neighbor quickly retreated into his house, while Tahir stepped fully outside.
“Daddy?” His youngest daughter’s voice emerged from within, and he turned. His wife and other children had crowded in the doorway behind her. Whispering. His oldest son, thirteen, had pulled on his jacket and shoes.
“Stay inside,” he told them, eyeing the boy especially. “I’ll be right back.”
He stepped hurriedly down the uneven dirt pathway, skirted the other mud-brick homes alongside. Another man followed him, a small crowd moving together toward the sounds of boisterous cursing and gunfire. More shots were fired and Tahir crouched low in the shadows. It sounded like an entire clip emptying. A woman beside him moaned a half-prayer, and he shooed her still with his hand. The air tasted funny, he realized. The back of his tongue was acrid, like he’d been chewing on something plastic.
He caught the eye of a friend, both men finding the courage to creep toward the end of the street together. There, the headlights of a stock-still van cast a muted glow onto the cramped main square. Bodies lay there, sprawled and twisted like a collection of his daughter’s cloth dolls dropped absently to the ground. Like, except for the widening pools of blood.
“They’re . . . they’re shooting themselves,” someone whispered from the shadows beside him, the voice both retreating and truthful. Tahir watched as one of the Taliban fighters shot another and then immediately brought the rifle beneath his own chin in a sudden ruby spout. A day laborer named Rafeeq scrambled to seize the dropped rifle but was shot down as two more Taliban charged into the square shouting more curses and commands. One noticed other onlookers across the square from Tahir and turned to fire. Four shadowy figures of various sizes spun and collapsed. The soldier cast off his now-empty rifle and stumbled toward the dead as if drunk, pulling free a handgun. Fired unremittingly into the first corpse. Then he turned and faced Tahir.
Tahir froze with nowhere to escape. The man pointed the gun and shot. Nothing. The clip already emptied. Still the man stood, wrist jerking half a dozen times, as if he’d actually been firing at Tahir. There was something in the man’s expression. His eyes. What is wrong with his eyes? Tahir shuddered.
Another fighter pounced beside this one and clubbed him in the head with a rifle. The man with the strange look went down and the second straddled him, driving the rifle butt into his face. Again and again and again.
Tahir stumbled backward, withdrawing in panic with the others. His eyes were stinging. Smoke from the rifles, he thought, a new chill suddenly nagging at the base of his very skull. Screams echoed behind him, and Tahir had to turn.
A woman—Padja’s wife, he thought—had been pulled down by two other men he knew well. Her face pushed to the ground, her chadri ripped away as both men struggled with their own pants. Tahir stopped his retreat. “No,” he shouted at them. Found himself moving forward to stop them. Found himself watching the woman’s body writhing beneath them, struggling to be free. Her exposed loins lifted and vulnerable for their every pleasure. For his too if he so desired. Tahir shook that sudden awful thought away. He advanced closer. “No,” he said again, but the word came out too slow, like in a dream. The worst dream.
Padja’s wife had rolled over, shamefully opening herself to them. But, the man on top of her was now screaming. Clutching his face, something dripping and red hanging between his fingers. His cheekbone glistened in the first rays of the rising sun. From beneath, Padja’s wife smiled at Tahir. Blood running down her chin. Her eyes. Something in her eyes.
Tahir crumpled. Crawled, his head vibrating. Shadowed figures both scrambled and lumbered past him in every direction. The unnatural taste and smell of plastic utterly filled his throat, his nose. Screams swathed the village, echoed off the looming mountain, where dawn burned crimson. His mind crowded with incessant and infinite thoughts, awful thoughts, buzzing like a million insects. Over this unrelenting swarm, he reflected, This is what Hell sounds like. And also, I must get home.
He staggered back down the street, propping himself against other homes to keep himself upright. Inside each, more screams. Mothers and brothers and babies howling together as one. Their cries joining the churning clamor in his head.
Someone grabbed him from behind. He turned, struck out. The boy collapsed. A friend of his sons. The boy had a knife, and Tahir took it from him easily. Used it just as easily. Stabbing again and again. Again.
He stepped more confidently down the path now. The swirling, immeasurable thoughts had finally become one. Only one.
He inspected the dripping knife. Smiled.
His family waited inside their house as he’d left them.
His daughter came to the door first.