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C H A P T E R  T H R E E

AFGHANISTAN

CHANGE

4 MAY, 1983

CHAPTERS

        “Rolan?”

        The name fell lame on his ears. It was a hollow word, one he picked for himself. The sound of it often failed to catch his attention despite the years he had masked himself with it. It vanished into the wind, carrying over the brush-speckled landscape. Viktor stood in the mountain’s shadow, looking over the ever-slanting valley.

        “Rolan,” the voice came again.

        “Hm,” Viktor turned, pressing his glasses back up the bridge of his nose. Dried droplets and dust coated the lenses. 

        “I need an answer.”

        Viktor retrieved a cloth from his pocket, gently removing his glasses to smear the grime away. It was a futile effort, done more so to spare himself another minute in thought before having to speak. He had nothing to say, and neither did he have anything to properly clean his glasses with. Such minor conveniences had begun to drift into memory in recent weeks, and clean water was better spent drunk than used to wash an old man’s glasses.

        The lumbering man beside him blew air audibly from his nose. Viktor peered up at him from beneath his tired eyes. The man had a scrambled pad of hair on his scalp with poorly cropped sides to keep the strands from growing over his ears. A Stalin-inspired mustache protruded from patchy, overgrown stubble which rounded over his blocky chin. A yellow-stained shirt was tucked into his trousers, overused and matted with dust. Everything about the man could be surmised by the color of the dirt they stood on.

        Viktor decided his silence had lingered long enough.

        “No,” he said.

        “No?” the man folded his arms. “It’s not much I’m asking for.”

        “It is.”

        “No, it’s not. We could help.”

        “This wouldn’t help them.”

        “Stubborn old man!” The man paced backward, shaking his head. “You know they can’t continue like this. These people are suffering. You feel it too.”

        The block of a man that stood before him had come their way a little over six months ago. He was a deserter from the Red Army named Moisey. He never shared a detail about his past, nor his rank, just that he needed to be free of the war. Viktor had prodded him with questions before, but was only ever met with a flushed face and tightened jaw. It was the only time Moisey avoided his gaze. Viktor eventually left it alone.

        There were others like him, and more to come thanks to Moisey. Soldiers, politicians, and Soviet civilians living in the capital city of Kabul had all managed to slink their way into the village thanks to the Mujahideen. It was the Red Army–or rather, the defiance of it–that led them to this place. In exchange for information, the freedom fighters allowed these desperate few to pass through the mountains to Pakistan rather than wait for their comrades to extract them. As thanks for the village’s cooperation, the Mujahideen gave monthly aid to the rural village. 

        But it was hardly a blessing.

        “There’s enough for us as it is,” Viktor stated. He set his glasses lightly against his nose. A grungy smear on the lens softened Moisey’s frown.

        “You know that’s not true. They’ve given just enough to keep you from starvation. They’ve kept you reliant–”

        “And this wouldn’t? The village would be deeper in their pocket.”

        “S’pose, but it’d feed these people,” Moisey lowered his shoulders. “Face this, there’s hardly a man left to tend to the village, nor a young one ‘part for our boys doing their chores–and we intend to leave one day soon–being that we’re deserters, yeah?” 

        Viktor sighed. He was right. Most of the Pashtun men had left to join the fight when Russia invaded. The village was gradually bled of its youth as more rampant hearts stormed off to join the Mujahideen. It was also true that they wouldn’t have people like Moisey to fill their place for long either. These were refugees who had turned their backs on the Motherland. They did not mean to linger. 

        Some though, like Moisey, did stay–perhaps feeling the guilt of their desertion, or that they still held the strength to help those weaker than them survive this war. There were a few like that amongst his group, though their presence did not inspire comfort in the locals. Not all bore the same care for the Pashtun as they did for their own. This was evident in the tension that seemed to always linger between them. They weren’t like Viktor, which was why he resented them. 

        “Come with me,” Viktor said, turning down a dirt path. Moisey grunted behind him, following. They hobbled down the slope of packed dirt towards his dwelling. Mud brick homes lined the twisting path, leading away from the mountain’s edge. It was a small village, practically invisible, and nestled in the ring of the southern mountains. Most here had never seen a Red Army soldier until Moisey arrived at their doorstep. The war had yet to touch the horizon beyond them. Viktor meant to keep it that way, but they could not survive alone forever. 

        Viktor approached the humble, single-story building that had been home to him since he first fled Russia. Rough, handmade bricks beveled out from the mud wall that blocked out the house. A thatched roof covered the building, neatly packed on top of a row of logs. Two green windows and a wooden door were all that marked the building’s face.

        He paused before the aged door, his eyes tracing over the memories that had passed through its splitting grain. Viktor twisted his tongue. His hand raised to the door, fingers sliding over its rugged surface to its edge. With a firm tug, the door creaked free from its rest, opening to the cool darkness within. He stepped aside, head held low. Moisey hesitated, silent.

        “Inside?” Moisey mused, brow lifted.

        Viktor looked up, a crease of annoyance forming above his nose. 

        “Pardon, ‘s just I’ve yet to have the honor,” Moisey grinned, shuffling his wide frame into the doorway.

Viktor stepped after him, gently setting the door back into its place behind them. The room was dimly lit by the faint sunlight that twisted through the green window panes, casting a cool veil of color over the room. Pillows lined the walls on the floor, all in drab color and disguised in the greenish light. A mattress rested beside a wall to their right, and opposite was a doorway to Viktor’s private room.

        “Wait here,” Viktor said, circling Moisey, whose posture slumped over to fit under the low ceiling. Viktor stopped, gesturing to the pillows, “And sit–if you’d like.” Viktor then swiveled back, walking towards his room. Moisey cleared his throat, wincing as he hunkered down to the floor. 

        Viktor slid into his room, closing the door behind him. His room was a tangled mess of his own design. Stacks of books, papers, and miscellaneous manuals gathered dust around a bed with a metal frame. Beside the bed, crammed against a wall, was a desk decorated in clutter. A single window hung above it, blessing the room with a more natural light through its clear glass. Particles of dust danced through the rays over his bed sheets, overdue for a wash. A curtain hung in the corner, shrouding a makeshift closet swelling with boxes and file cases.

        He maneuvered through his hoard of aging memorabilia to the closet, shaking the curtain aside. Rows of containers marked with neat white cards lined shelves stacked from the floor to the ceiling. He parted two black file cases marked with the years ‘1961’ and ‘1962’, revealing a small metal box. With care, he retrieved the box, holding it between his hands. He stared at it. A contortion of thought squeezed his mind. 

        Life wasn’t the same anymore, he knew that. It had been different for years, like a creeping illness he had ignored. The village was dying, nearly void of the vibrance it once had. The joyous people he had cherished dwindled, slipping from his grasp. This place was all he had left.

        He shook his head. That wasn’t true. That wasn’t all he feared to lose. He glanced sideways to an area of the wall tacked with polaroids. Pictures of captured moments of happiness scattered the wall. Friends linked by each other's arms, two smiles standing atop a mountainside, a huddled winter around a fire–precious moments he thought he could hold on to forever. He could recall the exact memories, and name each wonderful soul he shared them with. It felt that way now, that he was the only one who kept them.

        At the center, though, was his favorite picture. Held in the web of memories was a photograph of a boy gilded in sunlight, a toothy grin spread wide across his face. His eyes looked beyond the camera, at him. He met that gleeful smile each morning. That is what he held so earnestly to above all else.

        But he knew that moment, too, could not be ensnared forever.

        He left the room, taking the box with him. Moisey was picking at a scab on his arm when Viktor returned. Noticing him finally, Moisey quickly sat upright, attempting a proper posture. His gaze fell to the box Viktor carried.

        “I know we are losing,” Viktor spoke softly. He brought himself slowly to the floor, situating himself onto a pillow across from Moisey. The man frowned.

        “The people here are hurting,” Viktor continued. “Their fathers, mothers, brothers, and children have all been sullied by this war–and I don’t think they’re coming back.”

        Moisey leaned away, folding his arms.

        “But if they do, I want something for them to come back to,” Viktor watched Moisey’s expression as he spoke, seeking a sign that he might understand. “You have not been here long enough to see it–to feel it like I have, but these people cared for me–for us–for years.

        “I wish to do the same for them,” Viktor continued. “Their kindness is not something I can ever repay fully, but I will try.” Viktor paused, looking down at the box in his lap. He chewed his lip, thinking. “Allowing the Mujahideen to store supplies here risks the village’s discovery by the Red Army. I… We cannot allow this place to be found.”

        Moisey seemed to acknowledge Viktor’s words, grating his molars as he considered them. The man’s brow had bent into a serious glower of reasoning.

        “However,” Viktor resumed, recapturing Moisey’s attention. “Should we do nothing, the risk of starvation is far more likely. It would be shameful of me to crush what life remains here out of pride.”

        “So…” Moisey started. “We are agreed?”

        “On conditions.”

        “Of course,” Moisey grumbled.

        “You must not allow harm to come to these people, and you must not allow John to become part of this.”

        “Your boy? I don’t know, he’s–”

        “He is not to be a part of your group.”

        “And what if–?”

        “Nor is he to be found by the Mujahideen… or anyone. Keep him out of it.”

        “Fine.”

        “And one more thing,” Viktor cleared his throat.

        Moisey sighed, slacking his jaw to the side. Most of what Viktor had demanded had already been drilled into Moisey and his group of bandits by Viktor since they arrived, though Viktor always saw it crucial to cement the importance frequently. It was different now, now that he had Moisey in his home and spoke to him like this–properly–man to man. He hoped this time he would understand how grave this was.

        “I must ask you for a favor,” Viktor said, setting the box between the two of them.

        “What’s this?”

        “Something I need buried, far from here–and you are not to look inside.”

        Moisey furrowed his brow.

        “Consider this act a symbol of our trust for one another… Of our future partnership.”

        “Yeah, fine,” Moisey shrugged. “How far?”

        “Somewhere the Soviets won’t find it–also beyond your normal routes,” Viktor insisted. “I know this will be cumbersome, but it must be done.”

        “Why not have the boy do it?”

        “He’s not to be involved, remember? I can only trust you with this.”

        A sour look pushed down on Moisey’s face.

        “Somewhere in the mountains, or in the forest... Somewhere hard to get to.”

        Viktor’s palms began to sweat. He watched Moisey’s pupils sway side to side. The burly man chewed his mustache.

        “Now I need your answer–quickly.”

        “Alright,” Moisey said gruffly, slapping his hands on his lap. He reached out for the box, muttering under his breath.

        “A warning,” Viktor cut off his reach. “This box is lead-lined. Its contents are radioactive, hence why you must not open it. Should the Soviets discover this place, this cannot be found here. It would only hurt the people more.”

        Moisey seemed satisfied, if not a little more uncertain of his apparent curiosity for what lay inside the box. The man rubbed his fingers in his palms, then took the box, setting it beside his lap.

        “Shake on it,” said Moisey, extending a calloused hand.

        Viktor took hold of it, meeting his eye with a sober look. They shook, then stood together. Moisey took the box under his arm, though it looked more like a metal coin purse in his grasp. The deserter turned for the door. Viktor moved around him, opening it for him. Moisey gave him a look, then stepped out into the bright afternoon light. Viktor stepped out behind him, covering his eyes as they adjusted.

        “Ah, here comes your boy now,” Moisey smiled. “At least let me give him something to do, he’s got too much energy–”

       The rest of Moisey’s words fell into a droll din in his ear. Viktor looked on, down the road. Climbing up the path towards them, with that familiar grin, was John. He had grown much since Viktor took that photo some ten years ago. Now a broad-shouldered, young man, he loomed over the rest of the village people meandering throughout their day. A crop of tangled, black hair covered his light complexion. He did look as though Viktor had been keeping him hidden from the sun itself. Perhaps it would be good for him to take on some extra responsibility from Moisey–if it was kept within the village limits.

        Others were walking with him. Bahramand, one of the elders, walked ahead of the group, his age weighing down on each step he took. He had been overseeing some repairs on a generator for one of the townsfolk and Viktor had sent John to assist. By the looks on their faces, it appeared they were successful.

        Viktor had taught John as much as he could with the resources he had. Handiwork, basic medicine and care, biology and chemistry... He covered as much as he could from his education. Coming by instructional materials to assist him was near impossible, but over the years he had built up quite the collection of books to reference from… Even if they were a little outdated. With that knowledge, John could be useful to the villagers and hopefully be seen less as an outsider. Time proved that dream to be more difficult than he expected, but it helped. John could care for himself, and that’s what mattered to him most.

        “Salam alaikum,” Bahramand greeted, huffing slightly. He spoke from behind a full, gray beard, his hand placed on his chest. He was dressed in white linens, a brown vest, and a wool cap that covered his retreating hairline.

        “Peace be upon you,” Viktor returned, speaking in Pashto. He returned the gesture. 

        “How are you this afternoon, brother?”

        “Fine,” Viktor smiled. “How was John? Was he helpful?”

        “Greatly. Life has returned to Diyar’s home!” Bahramand raised his hands gleefully.

        “I’m glad to hear it,” Viktor nodded toward John. John had stopped beside them, his expression failing to hide his accomplishment. “Good work, son.”

        John nodded. The boy opened his mouth to speak just as another man brushed up beside them, entering their circle of conversation.

        “You should see him,” Asfand remarked, sliding through the group to Viktor, hand outstretched. He was one of the few left from those Viktor had met during his first expedition in Afghanistan. Asfand had only been a child when they were acquainted, but now he was a gruff man with a sun-beat, hairy face whose smile was both friendly and somewhat unsightly to look at. Viktor took his hand, giving it a firm shake. “He is like you–like you were, before. You may soon find time for yourself to relax.”

        “If only there wasn’t so much to be done,” Viktor returned. He could feel Moisey shrink away, unable to understand the conversation. Moisey’s presence teetered back shyly, though it was impossible for a man of his size to go unnoticed. Viktor caught Bahramand’s souring quizzical expression as the ex-Soviet removed himself from the group. 

        “Say,” said Asfand, “perhaps now we could try to get the old car working again, yes? If I might find the right parts, do you think it could be done?”

        “If we know what to look for,” Viktor replied. “I would imagine it’s not much different than working on a generator. I might have an old manual lying around.” He began to turn, thinking. “It’s a Lada, correct?”

        Asfand made a sound, nodding. It wasn’t convincing.

        “The Soviet import–small and white?” Viktor specified.

        “Yes, yes, that’s the one!”

        “There is an abandoned car wreck along the northern road,” Bahramand broke in. “Could that be used as salvage?”

        “Ah,” Viktor shrugged. “It could be, but the road’s far too dangerous.” He paused, cupping his jaw in his hand. The sound of Moisey’s footsteps crunching away conjured Viktor’s solution.

        “Moisey,” Viktor called. The man turned, brow lowered. “We may have a job for you.”

        The man pivoted, treading his way back to the fray of scrutinizing eyes. He looked uneasy, but held himself sturdy in their presence. 

        “Yah?” said Moisey, falling into a more confident stride.

        “The car wreck on the northern road to Gardez? You know it?”

        “Probably passed it before on a run. One of the routes we take to Kabul, maybe?” Moisey shifted his weight, eyes squinting as the sun reached over the sky.

        “We’d like to salvage it for parts,” Viktor continued. “If you pass by there again, do you think you could haul back anything useful?” Moisey gave him a look, his upper lip curling with uncertainty. 

        “Why not send John?” a voice trilled behind Viktor.

        Viktor chewed the inside of his cheek, turning towards the voice. A girl in drab fatigues strolled up the path toward them. Curls of bright red hair lifted in the breeze from beneath a cloaked hood wrapped over her head and shoulders. She wore a set of pouches slung over her chest, each fastened shut with polished animal bone. Her pale skin reflected the sunlight, and as she stopped beside John, it looked as though two beaming moons had set on the horizon.

        Nuria. 

        The girl was a constant source of strain on Viktor’s wishes for John. The poor thing had come to them when she and John were children. Her mother was a journalist from overseas who had been staying in Kabul. She was killed in an ambush on the roads, leaving her child alone and terrified. When Nuria was found, she had been curled up beside her mother’s body. The Gharsanay family took her in, caring for her until they died in an attack by the Red Army on the very same road. She joined up with Moisey and his boys shortly after.  

        It was no surprise to Viktor that she and John would attach to one another, especially at that age. The two of them were foreigners, so different from the other children. They had linked together as they struggled to grow and understand the world they lived in. Now, they were practically inseparable. Viktor had been thankful for their friendship for John’s sake, but as they matured, she began to tug at the threads Viktor had so carefully sewn for his future–and safety.

        Bahramand pretended to brush dust from his vest, sauntering off. The elder nodded to Viktor as he passed. Asfand did the same, but not before grimacing in the girl’s direction. The awkward departures weren’t uncommon. Nuria’s affiliation with Moisey, particularly as a woman, had carved a rift between her and the villagers. It was one more thing to strain the harmony of their lives. 

        Viktor set his shoulders, inhaling deeply. “It’s already been decided,” he said with conviction.

        “Sure,” the girl noted, looking at the ground. “But I’d be going with Moisey. We’d look after him.”

        “Not necessary.”

        “If I might, sir, John’s been–”

        “I’m ready,” John stepped up. 

        “John,” Viktor murmured, pinching the bridge of his nose.

        “I’m old enough–much older. Nuria’s even younger than I am,” said John, gesturing to her.

        “That’s not the issue.”

        “Then what is, dad?”

        Viktor felt their eyes push against his resolve. He didn’t want to escalate this tiresome issue, not in the open. He had been over it countless times with the boy, though it became increasingly strenuous to keep him collected now. 

        He gestured to the horizon behind them. “Every day the war gets closer. The Soviets hold the main roads, and more dead are found scattered over them by the day,” said Viktor. “The answer is no. It’s too dangerous.”

        “But you’d have Moisey–and Nuria–go risk it for car parts?” John’s voice became cross.

        “I’d prefer they didn’t, but it’s their duty. They joined this fight. They choose to face those risks, and I would hope by now that they understand the gravity of them.” Viktor’s eyes narrowed on Nuria, who looked away. 

        “So why can’t I choose?” John all but blurted.

        “Son–”

        “Hey,” Nuria said, putting herself between them.

        Moisey cleared his throat. “Look,” he pointed beyond them.

        They turned. Along the valley floor, a trail of swelling dust tore toward them. At its head, the shape of a pickup truck rocked over the landscape. It was heading towards the village.

        “Get back to the house,” Viktor snapped. His eyes were locked onto the truck as it tore up the hill. “We’ll speak about this later.”

        “No,” John said.

        “Later,” Viktor pressed. “Moisey, the next supply drop. When is it?”

        “Not for another two days,” the man responded, resting his arms on his chest.

        “Nuria, take John–”

        “I’m staying here. I’m not a kid. I’m not hiding away anymore,” John spoke firmly.

        Viktor met John’s scowl, whose gray eyes flared with determination. Viktor made a sound through his teeth, placing his hands on his back. Nuria swayed uncomfortably beside them. Viktor shook his head, turning and starting down the road to the approaching cloud of dust. The others fell in after him.

        Fine, he thought. The boy wasn’t a child. He had his own voice, his own path; sooner or later he’d take it. Viktor couldn’t hold on to him. He couldn’t force those photographed memories to live forever. Those days of simplicity were gone, and he had to face that.

        “Keep behind me,” Viktor called back.

        The image of the sand cloud bobbed in the reflection of Viktor’s glasses as he stomped down the road. The path was unkempt and rocky, reminding him why he rarely came this way. Each footfall shuddered a twinge of pain through his shins. He grit his teeth through it. He wouldn’t let the image of his authority slip any further.

        John appeared in the corner of his eye, pacing up beside him. His head was turned to look at him. Viktor snorted, marching ahead. The boy would obey one command of his, even if he had to be the one to enact it. He kept the sound of his son’s steps from his ears with labored breaths of frustration. The boy eventually fell back behind him, leaving Viktor to his march over the rocks.

        His shoulders throbbed from the uneasy hike down to the village edge. Knots in his muscles tugged angrily as he came to a stop, planting himself in the center of the road. The truck came clearly around a bend in the hill, tilting to each side from the uneven road–and the weight it carried. 

        The unmistakable appearance of Mujahideen fighters rode the metal shell of the pickup like a sitting flock of birds on a lumbering tortoise. Men sat atop the vehicle’s carapace wearing pakol hats, their flat, wool tops making them look like cloaked rook pieces. Dust caked their clothes and faces. 

        The truck swung up just before him, lurching to a stop. The men hopped from the pickup, scrambling to the back to remove a large blanket covering its bed. A man with an expression bent with contempt exited the truck, slamming the door. Dried blood and sand cracked on his twisted face. His eyes burned into Viktor as he trudged up to him. Viktor stood, nervous, but kept himself outwardly unshaken. His jaw locked in anticipation.

        The man’s voice cracked something incoherent as he advanced towards them. Viktor’s brow narrowed. The insurgent shouted again, waving his hands dramatically. He recognized the words he spoke as Dari, of which he knew little. His palms began to sweat as he strained his memory to recall the words the man spoke. His hesitation only provoked the man’s impatience. 

        The man, whose cheeks curled with the black hairs of a twisted beard, reached out and snagged Viktor’s sleeve, tugging him to the truck. Viktor tripped forward, barely keeping himself from falling. He grabbed hold of the man’s arm, stabilizing himself. The man snapped a look of disgust at Viktor. 

        “Let go of him!” John called in Pashto. The boy rushed over the road to them.

        Viktor swung his gaze from the boy to the truck. Two soldiers burdened by stolen flak jackets brandished their rifles, shouting. They shook the long-barreled guns with intent, pointing them at John and Viktor.

        Viktor let go of the man clutching him, holding a halting hand up to John. The boy froze where he was, curling his lips over his teeth. Moisey and Nuria held farther back, watching skittishly.

        Viktor was suddenly lifted upright and dragged to the back of the truck where the rest of the insurgents were waiting. Their faces were sullen, pointed at the earth. Those that looked at him curled their noses until Viktor dropped his gaze. It was another tribe. They were forced to come here, but for what reason? His question was soon answered as he saw what lay in the back of the pickup. 

        Two men, soaked in blood, lay swaddled in their desert garb along a tarp fitted into the truck bed. One rasped forcefully, his chest convulsing with each stuttered breath. The other lay still, his abdomen lifting slightly, almost unnoticeable. His eyes shifted beneath their lids. They had lost a lot of blood, indicated by their pale faces. Viktor paused, looking over them. It was impossible to tell how terrible their wounds were like this.

        “Doctor,” a slender man broke from the crowd. “You?”

        Viktor turned, jaw lowered. The simple words seemed to roll sluggishly in his brain. He knew them, he knew they spoke of him, but he found himself unable to make the connection. He rubbed his palm with his thumb, seeking a response. Many pairs of critical eyes stuck to him from all around. Viktor shifted on his heel, facing them. He cleared his throat. Say something!

        Someone started to yell, incomprehensibly. The others were suddenly sparked into the angered outcry. Someone clawed for his shirt, trying to get to him. He fell back against the truck, clutching for anything to hold on to. Another pushed him aside, scrambling to get to one of the wounded.

        “D-Doctor!” Viktor yelled.

        Some of the men stopped their pushing. They stared at him. Viktor licked his lips.

        “Me,” Viktor gestured to himself, nodding.

        “Help,” a man said bluntly.

        “Fix,” another chimed.

        Viktor nodded again, holding his right hand outward. “Pashto?” he said, looking over the crowd. He needed help. He needed someone he could communicate with, or these men would die. Any misunderstanding could end poorly for them–and himself.

        “Pashto?” he repeated.

        Someone shuffled forward; a younger man wearing a turban. A tawny-colored cloak was wrapped over his shoulders, covering most of his loosely worn, bluish clothing. His brow was pinched in a permanent expression of uncertainty. He blinked, offering no more than his presence. It would do.

        “The men,” Viktor pointed behind him. “I need them removed from the truck. Place them on clean blankets, if you have them.”

        The turban-wearing man turned, muttering in Dari to the others. It seemed Viktor had his translator. The soldiers moved around Viktor, grabbing the blanket they had used to cover the wounded. They flattened the dusty cloth over the earth and lowered the men onto it. Their bodies were limp, worrying Viktor.

        “John!” Viktor called. The boy leaned into view opposite the truck. “Clean blankets! And bring my supplies–they have wounded. Moisey–”

        The broad Russian gave a curt nod and jogged after John before he could finish. The two quickly hiked up the hill, disappearing from view. The seconds they left behind stretched painfully. Hurry. Viktor’s face felt hot. Nuria stared at him for a moment from atop the road, a concerned look on her face. He watched her, eyeing her. Slowly she turned, heading after John and Moisey.

        Viktor rolled up his sleeves, returning to the situation at his feet. He knelt beside the ragged bodies, both breathing in broken patterns. They were in poor condition. Both suffered from bullet wounds, certainly. Was it possible to save them? He bent over the man who had been breathing in a shallow rhythm. He had to determine who could spare the extra seconds he needed to care for them. With two fingers, Viktor felt for the man’s pulse on his neck. There was a struggle to feel anything. He pressed firmly into the man’s throat, catching a listful beat timidly thumping against his fingers. It was fading, fast.

        He leaned over to the other patient. This one was still covered in layers of clothing and a thick chest rig. He would need something to cut through the clothing. Sweat beaded on his brow. He couldn’t wait for John.

        “Knife,” Viktor begged, looking around the crowd. He held his palm out to them. “A blade–I need to cut through their clothes.”

        Several soldiers swayed uneasily, but the turban-wearing man understood. He crouched over him, pointing at the patient’s chest rig. Viktor peered over the rig, noticing the outlining of a sheath. Viktor’s hand searched for a blade. His fingers curved over a handle. A sigh of relief floated from his tightened chest. He felt around the object, finding a button loop fastening the item into the sheath. He popped the strap loose and slid the blade from its rest. A long, shining dagger sang free from the sheath. He held it softly in his hands, his eyes glancing up at the faces hovering over him. 

        Thoughts fluttered in his head. The blade might part their clothes, but the chest rig would be far too tough–and dangerous–to attempt to slice through with the large blade. He turned to the man with the shallow breathing, taking hold of his clothing. He pierced the man’s shirt with the dagger, swiftly scarring it up to his chest. Setting the blade aside, he tore the rest of the clothing apart. 

        Dust and sand had obscured the locations of the wounds. Now they gaped up at him. Two holes in his chest and abdomen bled freely now that the clothing had been pulled away. Viktor cursed.

        “John!” he called. He needed bandages–cloth–clean material to blot and add pressure to the wounds.         Viktor’s time was seeping away. He climbed onto the body, forcing his palm onto his bleeding chest. The rest of his weight he dug into the puncture in the abdomen with his knee. It wouldn’t be enough. It quickly became difficult to balance his concentration on both holes. His hand nearly slipped from the chest wound as blood crept out from between his fingers. 

        Red coated over the body. All he could see was red. Red, red, red. It slipped away from his grasp, trickling into the earth and turning dark. He was losing him–losing again. He grit his teeth, placing his other hand on top of the other. The man’s chest sagged as Viktor pressed harder. A growl rose in Viktor’s throat. 

        The ground shook with sudden steps as someone skirted to Viktor’s side. Pale hands shoved a thickly folded cloth against his. He snatched the cloth, pressing it over the man’s chest. It rapidly darkened as it drank, but the flow ceased to spread outwards.

        His knee slipped from its place. Snapping his attention down, he noticed his trousers were soaked red. He looked up, expecting to see John. It was Nuria who knelt beside him, already moving to press on the abdomen wound. 

        Bewildered, he spun about, looking for John. A moment’s panic passed as he noticed a shape behind him in the corner of his eye. John was there, rending the tightened rig of the other soldier in two with a pair of medical scissors. He watched as John chopped through the tough material, then ripped the rest of the rig away. Moisey was beside him too, ready with bandages. Viktor noticed blood, but far less emerged from the soldier’s body.

        There was a stirring uproar as Viktor turned his attention back to his patient. The men around them began arguing. Looking up from his glasses, he saw Nuria begin to grimace. Their contempt was pointed at her. 

        “Not now,” Viktor whispered.

        The arguing turned to yelling, then someone yanked Nuria away. Blood poured openly from the man’s abdomen. Viktor scrambled to cover the wound. His hair hung in sweat-drenched strands over his eyes, making it difficult to see. Nuria yelled back at them. Viktor shook his head, cursing. 

        “John,” He called over his shoulder. “Take Nuria, now!”

        “I’ve got this!” John shouted.

        “Listen to me, she’s–”

        “Shit!”

        Viktor turned. Blood welled from John’s palm. He cut himself–somehow he had cut himself. 

        “No,” Viktor’s mouth hung open. This couldn’t happen now. 

        A soft, orange glow bloomed from beneath John’s skin near the gash in his hand. As it did each time, the smolder came to life, seeking the injury. To heal it.

        “Moisey!” Viktor snapped. “Get Nuria–take her!”

        “Doctor,” Moisey nodded. His form stood, shadowing them. Viktor saw him shove through the crowd forming around Nuria. He parted them, taking Nuria by the wrist. There was a scuffle, and someone lunged forward. Moisey swung an elbow. Someone fell. There was more yelling. Men were pulled aside. The two eventually withdrew from the circle. Viktor watched them leave.

        “John,” Viktor spoke steadily.

        “Yes?”

        “Go to the house,” Viktor regarded the boy over his shoulder. “Let no one see.”

        John held his lip in his teeth, eyes heavy. He bowed his head, then snuck away. John covered his hand, stepping around the crowd still recovering from the altercation. Viktor watched until the boy vanished from view. No one seemed to notice or care for his disappearance. None looked back, nor felt any curiosity Viktor feared they would have. Instead, they all looked at him, their expressions drooping. He looked over their faces, puzzled. Then he looked down.

        The man beneath him had stopped breathing. Blood welled from his open mouth, and his eyes stared aimlessly into the sky. He was gone.

        The crowd muttered, their voices growing louder between them. Viktor slumped back, feeling the defeat pull down on his chest. His stomach tightened as men approached him. Their dark shapes surrounded him. Hands and arms tugged him away from the body.

        “Wait,” Viktor started. “The other–I can save him! He’s alive!”

        They dragged him back across the earth. His feet kicked out as he struggled to stand. He tried to wrestle free, but the net of hands that held him tightened. They abruptly let go and he dropped; his head thudding against the ground. His glasses fell from his nose.

        A blurred image stood over him, eclipsing the pounding sun. The blur held something. The sound of metal clacked sharply and something extended towards his face. He exhaled, words stuttering behind his teeth.

        A yell bellowed from the direction of the crowd. Viktor tilted his clouded gaze. Arms waved as blobs of color entered the circle of judgment. He could make out the round body and white clothing of Bahramand.         His familiar, croaking voice called out. There were others–villagers, pushing into the crowd. They stammered in harsh voices. The Mujahideen bayed in return, furious words snapping from each of their mouths. 

        The display of exasperated gestures and pointing continued. Grating blurbs of speech struck back and forth. The shape above him brushed backward, letting the sun’s light pierce into Viktor’s eyes. The object that was held, pointed at his face, was removed. He covered his eyes, watching as a wash of white color swayed towards him.

        Several long seconds passed before the white blob stood beside him. What he assumed was a hand reached down for him. He took it in his grasp, allowing it to help him to his feet. He looked around, feeling the earth with his feet for his glasses. The person beside him bent down, retrieving an object and placing it in his hands. He felt over the rims of his lenses, carefully placing them back over his eyes.

        The bearded face of his friend formed before him. Bahramand smiled in a small sort of way. Viktor’s heart raced.

        “Come,” Bahramand said sparingly. “Come, it can be fixed.” Viktor followed him, wearily lifting his tired legs over the rocky soil. They approached the bodies slowly. Others stood around them. Mujahideen watched attentively; their fists clenched over reflective, black, and titian rifles. The sun’s glare stared fervently off the metal of the guns.

        “Thank you,” Viktor muttered. Bahramand smiled back at him, keeping on.

        The two stopped at the feet of the bodies. Viktor looked at them, watching the first breathe slowly and the other watch openly. He relented to the urge to meet the gaze of the throng surrounding him. Looks of earnestness and malice met his squinting eyes. Villagers stood ready, bandages and cloth held in their hands.

        Viktor lowered his head before them, then stooped to his knees. He began to work, removing the clothing of his last remaining patient. Together they labored, blotting blood and removing sunken shards of metal from the man’s body. Cruel faces observed each move they made. Even the sun coiled over the sky for a better view as the day drew older. 

        As the sky grew red and the first stars of the ending day tasted the cooling air above, they finished their work. The man beneath them breathed steadily, his chest wrapped heavily in bandages. He would need dedicated care and greater help than they could offer, but he was alive.

        Whispers carried over the air. Viktor’s knees hummed with pain. He sat back, looking over all who were around him. A few smiles could be made out in the dimming light. His breathing became hoarse and fatigue hung throughout his body. A hand clapped his shoulder. He managed to look up. The silhouette of a man in a turban loomed over him.

        “God is great,” the man said. Viktor forced a smile, then let his head roll down between his shoulders.

        God is great, he thought. He didn’t know what the words meant at that moment. They thumped in his head like a second heartbeat. All sensations buzzed over his skin. 

        “Great,” Viktor managed. The darkness of the night then fell over them.

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