MisterKillam (Riley A. G. Killam)
It all started quietly enough, on a rooftop in Hajji Shah Wali Kalay, a name that nearly everybody, including Michael Oliver, hated typing in situation reports, after-action reviews, and area assessments. He woke up with the sun, having slept on the roof to take advantage of the cool breeze that came in from the desert to the south. Mike pulled his sleeping bag over his eyes, trying to shut out the sun, shut out the whole damnable country, trying in vain for a few more minutes' dreaming of home.
After the sleeping bag started acting more like an oven, he finally relented to the call of his morning cigarette, sitting on his cot while he slipped on his sandals and lit one of his last remaining American cigarettes. By noon, he'd have to switch to the Afghan brand. They tasted of turpentine and felt like swallowing steel wool, but nicotine was nicotine, after all. Any chemical relief was more than welcome in a country that was dry in every sense of the word. The coffee boiled over a petrol stove as he read the notes from the night's radio traffic, insurgents doing nothing but asking each other what they were thinking about at odd hours of the night, nothing out of the ordinary for the ineptly tenacious gang of so-called Taliban that claimed the bazaar and surrounding farm villages as their sacred ground. Sure, there were bombings and rocket attacks, ex-Mujahideen turning against their one-time liberators, but these happenings seemed clustered in every district but the idyllic countryside of the Horn of Panjwai. Mike met with the rest of the team, discussed the day's presence patrol, spent a few minutes sharing some choice Pashto phrases with the perpetually stoned platoon of Afghan National Police who shared the mud-walled compound with their detachment, and set to preparing for the day's nature hike through the fields of pink flowers that surrounded their ersatz home.
The first sign that something was out of place was the sky. The skies were overcast, steel-grey clouds obscuring the afternoon's hot sun. The weather forecast had made no mention of any significant cloud cover, and the rains wouldn't come until the next monsoon, in the fall. His teammates didn't notice anything, not wanting to look that gift horse in the mouth until they were done trudging through the hashish fields. As was his tradition, Mike took a seven-lobed leaf from one of the plants and put it in his beard, reciting the only line of Coleridge that anyone knew as he stuck it under his chin. They kept walking toward the mesa that dominated the Horn, moving to relieve the sniper and observer that had spent the previous day atop the rock overlooking their little slice of purgatory. They never took the same route twice, not wanting to invite a landmine from the local insurgency, and on this particular ascent, he noticed a small opening in the side, just big enough for a man wearing less kit than he to squeeze through. He told the patrol to go on, taking the new kid with him to check the hollow for any arms caches or explosives.
Brian followed his team sergeant into the cave, slipping out of his body armor and pulling it in after him before donning it and searching the small cavern. “Boss, looks like it keeps going. We going to keep looking?”
“Do bears shit in the woods? Keep your voice down,” Mike admonished. He knew he should forgive the kid, he hadn't trained in caves, he hadn't been up north, where the snake holes stretched for miles and housed entire underground cities. Still, there could be something deeper in. Mike radioed to his team to relieve the sniper team and make their way to the cave while he left a chemlight by the first bend. They made their way deeper, leaving more chemlights every few meters, switching on their night vision when the sunlight stopped shining deep into the cave.
They first heard the voice after they had been walking for two hundred meters. It was too faint to make out, but it didn't have the slurred, fluid syllables of Pashto. They kept going, keeping quiet as the voice slowly grew in volume. After a hundred more meters, they could tell that the voice was shouting in English, calling for help in a hoarse, raspy tone. They pressed on more quickly now, deeper into the rock, straining to hear the plea for help over their echoing footsteps. “Identify yourself!”, Brian shouted. The voice simply continued shouting that it was wounded, that it was hungry. As they stumbled through the cavern, they heard it more clearly, discerning a British accent. Mike didn't know of any British forces that had worked in the area since the start of the war. He wondered how anyone, even someone from the SAS, could survive down here for eleven years. As he stood there, wondering, he heard a scream behind him. “Help me out here, boss! My fucking ankle's broken!” He flipped a blue lens on his headlamp and shone it at his partner, seeing the blood flowing from the open fracture. Mike worked quickly to staunch the spurting flow, prying his teammate's foot from between the rocks and splinting it as best he could.
“You're going to be okay, we're turning back and we're going to get you out of here. You just earned your free ticket home, pal.” Brian grunted as the quickclot heated up, sealing off his wound. Mike turned to grab his radio, to tell the team that they were coming out of the cavern, but there was no response. They were too far underground for radio signals to reach the outside. He turned to lift Brian out, to carry him out of the cave, but he was gone. “Brian! This isn't funny, where the hell are you? Get back here so I can get us the hell out of here!” But there was no response. The rocks looked the same as they had when Brian was lying there, the blood was still on the floor of the cave, but Brian was gone. He had vanished without a trace.
Mike doubled back, running as fast as the rough ground would allow. He knew that he should have found one of the chemlights by then, that he should be going back the way they came, but he couldn't find even a trace of light in the impenetrable black of the cave. He froze when he heard the voice call out again. “Your friend is safe. He's home now. You'll be home soon. Just follow my voice,” said the Englishman. Mike felt compelled to find him, bound to find where the owner of that voice had taken his partner. As he pressed on, the sound of his footsteps gave way to the gurgling of an underground stream, and the blackness gave way to a warm, flickering glow. As he rounded the corner, he saw a man sitting by a fire on the bank of the stream. He was wearing a red coat with a high collar, faded epaulets resting on his shoulders, tarnished gold buttons running down his chest. A dessicated husk of a man in body armor rested on a rock by the brook.
“What did you do to him? What did you do to Brian?”
“I brought him home, Sergeant Oliver. He's safe with his family now. Isn't that what you want, more than anything? To be home, as though none of this had happened?” Mike was too stunned to notice a bony, wizened hand reaching out to him.
Mike Oliver had retired from the service after the peace brought about more downsizing in the Army. He had gone to school, became a doctor of history, a man with children and infant grandchildren, but every day of his life, whenever his mind was unoccupied, he saw a young man in a red officer's coat, just out of view, hiding in the corner of his eye.