He was back on Vaygach Island, staring out at the dead water of the Kara Sea. Behind him something burned. It was screaming, but it sounded hollow, like he was listening at the end of a long tunnel. Karsten found he couldn't turn around. His feet remained firmly planted in the cold, wet mud like a statue fixed to its pedestal. It was 1999 and he was 24. He was 24, and he'd already seen a lifetime's worth of horrors.
"Don't worry, it won't escape," said a soft voice from behind him. Then came the touch of slender fingers on his shoulders. Magda.
His heart leapt and he felt the hold on his body disappear. Karsten turned, only to be left staring at a hollow, fire-blackened skull.
He woke up with a start in the relative cool of the tattered tent, 15 years later and every bit as dead inside. Karsten Eiker rubbed his eyes and cursed himself for falling asleep. Ever since landing at Aden Adde International Airport, he'd felt like a piece of meat on a barbecue. He hated the weather in this place with a passion he'd never been able to summon for anything else, but if all went as it should, he'd be out of there soon.
He'd gotten a ride out here to the middle of the desert from a local Chaos Insurgency contact, a man he knew as Jilbis. Google Translate told him it meant "viper" or "cobra". He'd never gotten the need for code names; in this information age, no amount of obfuscation could shield you forever, let alone a simple one-word code name. Regardless of his personal preferences, he'd gotten "Laertes". He'd never been a fan of Shakespeare; too much tits and death for his tastes.
Someone entered the tent.
"You come highly recommended by a Russian friend of mine, Mr. Laertes."
The speaker, a local warlord known only as The Tiger of Jilib, blocked most of the light as he stood in the opening. He was a massive man, not just in height, but also in girth. Karsten knew him as Yusuf al-Hilam, the son of a doctor and a car mechanic, who nursed the trauma of his parents' mismatched social status and the accompanying bullying like a hobo nursed his last beer. He was everything you'd expect from an East-African dictator: crude, gullible, vain and most importantly of all, predictable. Karsten smiled.
"That's good to hear," Karsten said, "considering I'm not on very good terms with my Russian friends."
The Tiger didn't even seem to register the reply and simply nodded, grabbing a bottle of what was probably booze. He looked at Karsten. "Would you like a drink, Mr. Laertes?"
Karsten got up from the rickety folding chair he'd been napping in and nodded. "Sure, why not? I need all the moisture I can get, eh?" He tried to sound whimsical, but the dream had disturbed him, even if he'd dreamt it countless times before. He never seemed to get used to it.
The warlord poured him a shot and handed him the chipped little glass. It had something in it that smelled like it'd come out of a dead animal's rectum, but The Tiger didn't seem to let that bother him; he downed his glass without thinking twice. Karsten was thinking twice, possibly even three or four times about joining him, but he still emptied his glass. It wasn't that bad really, so he gracefully accepted a refill when he was offered one.
"Shall we sit?" the warlord said and gestured at the arrangement of colorful but completely mismatched chairs in the tent. They stood arranged haphazardly around a small camping table that was as rickety as the chair Karsten'd woken up in. At the moment, this table held Karsten's reinforced metal briefcase.
"Let's," Karsten said and strolled back over to the chairs. He sat down and raised his glass in salute.
"Do you have family, Mr. Laertes?" The Tiger asked.
Karsten took a sip of the foul concoction and shook his head. "No. In my line of work, a family is a big fat target."
The warlord nodded. "Of course, of course. Not even parents or a brother though? Surely you are not entirely alone."
"I had a sister."
The way he said it made The Tiger wary of digging any deeper. "Well, let's not waste any more time on smalltalk, Mr. Laertes. I take it you have brought me the item you were so enthusiastic about?"
Karsten silently put his glass away and touched his finger to a little black pad on the briefcase's top. After a few seconds of satisfying whirring it opened with a soft click.
"There you go," he said.
He saw his customer's face light up and at that moment he knew that all of this would go off without a hitch. Here was a man who had no greater motivation for what he was doing than the simple, animalistic desire to destroy.
The Tiger of Jilib peered into the briefcase and cleared his throat. "Is this the only one you brought?"
"Just the one, yes," Karsten answered. "We'll be producing more, but these things take a long time to manufacture. This is the first, and may I say, you're getting a very good deal here."
"I am sure that we are, but you will forgive me my misgivings. What you have promised me sounds sounds quite…unbelievable."
Karsten nodded. "Well, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. How about we take this baby out for a test run then? I assume you have a suitable weapon somewhere around here?
"Yes, of course," the warlord said and barked an order at one of his many soldiers, most of whom looked like they liked holding guns, but weren't very good at using them.
Karsten watched as they brought out an RPG-32 Hashim. He motioned for them to bring it to him. Inspecting it, he saw it hadn't been taken care of very well. Not that it really mattered, not for the purposes of this test. He carried the grenade launcher over to the briefcase and took the specially crafted ammunition container out of its protective packing material. It felt light and balanced, almost too light for the sheer amount of destruction contained within. For a moment he hesitated, unsure what was going to happen exactly, but then he attached it to the back of the launcher.
"Ready when you are, Yusuf," he said and passed the weapon to the Somali. "Did you have a target in mind?"
The Tiger glared at him, unaccustomed to being addressed by his given name.
"You will refer to me as the-" he started before Karsten interrupted. "Tiger of Jilib, yes. I'm sorry."
Karsten held up his hands apologetically. "I forgot my manners, sir. Please forgive me the discourtesy."
The warlord frowned but nodded. "Apology accepted. And no, I have not yet selected a target. How about that building there?" he said and pointed at a shack some 100 meters off.
Karsten relaxed and smiled. "Fine by me. Have a blast."
The stupid pun was lost on The Tiger, who immediately brought the scope up to his eye and gleefully fired. The rocket sped towards the low building and when it impacted, just for a moment, nothing appeared to happen. Then the air seemed to fold in on itself and with a loud screeching sound, everything disappeared. Karsten's senses were telling him it was all gone. The desert, the building, the warlord, his troops, their command tent, everything. It wasn't darkness, because you could see darkness. It was an absolute nothing, and within that nothing, something was screaming - something inhuman.
Then reality seemed to reassert itself. The Tiger of Jilib was on the desert floor, eyes wide and empty. His skin was nearly translucent now, showing the tissue beneath like a morbid anatomically correct model. He seemed smaller somehow, shriveled inside his clothes. A cursory glance told Karsten that The Tiger's soldiers and every animal in the immediately vicinity had suffered the same inexplicable fate. He watched, senses deadened, as the sands shifted and scores of dead scorpions rose to the surface of the desert.
When his battered and beleaguered brain had finally managed to grab ahold of reality again, Karsten felt a burning sensation. Then the pain hit him like a full-on collision with a semi. He ripped open the thin white shirt he had on and looked down. The tear-shaped pendant he'd been wearing had left a burn mark in its exact shape. The smell of his own flesh cooking was nauseating and he staggered back for a moment before falling down on his ass. He wanted to rip the pendant off its simple twine string, but he knew better than that.
"Okay," he muttered, "okay, let's recap. Jesus."
Karsten was silent for a moment. The only sound he could hear was the rushing of the wind as it already began covering the corpses with a thin layer of desert sand.
He got up and dusted himself off.
"So they work, that's for goddamn sure," he said to no one in particular, and took out a small tablet from his inside pocket. It was amazing what money could buy in terms of connectivity out in the middle of nowhere. He woke the thing up and tapped out his password. A few seconds later it was connected to one of the Insurgency's secure communications servers. After supplying his credentials, he accessed his list of contacts and sent a message to his handler.
Subject: Ninurta Project Field test
Field test successful. Yield exceeds expectation, but operators need to be shielded better. Burnt a hole in my chest and I wasn't even firing the fucking thing. ETA approximately 14hrs from now. Will debrief. Get me a coke and a tuna sandwich, I've earned it.
P.S. The UN should pay us for cleaning up here.
He put the tablet away and took in the scene in front of him one last time. There was no fire, no smoke, there was nothing to show that any weapon had been fired. Just a 5 meter deep crater where once a little shack had stood. That, and the lifeless bodies of sixteen men, nine goats, two cats, three dogs and give or take fifty-four scorpions.
Karsten fixed his shirt as best he could and calmly went looking for a vehicle to drive into the nearest town. With any luck Magda wouldn't be there the next time he slept. Then again, luck played little part in his life these days.