Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lightning Days by Colin Harvey

Lightning Days
By Colin Harvey

Part 1
Now Prologue
1 Year Before Present Day

For a microsecond, reality slipped and a second Earth appeared, barely thirty thousand miles from the first, the pair orbiting the sun as close as cars tailgating microns apart on a freeway. Anyone blessed with the Gods-Eye-View usually reserved for astronauts would have noticed both Earths were identical, even to the Suez Canal and Great Wall of China on each. A doppelganger moon orbited the second earth.
The titanic stresses created by the duplicates rang like a clanging chime through the planets' crusts - air, water; even the magma deep inside surged in one sudden movement.
Then the interlopers vanished.
The event was so brief that satellites missed it. The only indicators were the storms that for months afterward seemed to spring from nowhere, a surge in the Pacific that if it hadn't lost momentum as suddenly and inexplicably as it started would have dwarfed any known tsunami, and a plethora of readings inexplicable to the seismologists and oceanographers studying them.
On the remaining, original Earth, life returned to normal.
For a time.

Chapter 1
Present Day
Cassidy stiffened as the shots rang out across the still Afghan morning. After several hours of nerve-shredding tension, the soldiers' discipline was momentarily fractured, and four of them scattered like quail.
Graves looked furious, but said nothing. He held up his hand until his men's training kicked in and they grew still. He murmured, “I thought the shots were in the next valley, Major.”
Cassidy said equally quietly, “They were. Trust your judgment, Lieutenant.” Graves' red face flushed at the implied reprimand. Cassidy continued, “You want me to stand sentry while you talk to them?”
“They're good men,” Graves insisted. “Just raw. They're weekend soldiers. No one prepared them to be sent deep into bandit country with no bloody back-up, and no idea why.” He glared at Cassidy.
“I know,” Cassidy murmured, seeking to defuse the tension. “It's okay, Digger.” He used the nickname by which Graves had introduced himself at Kandahar. He added, “At least no one fired and drew attention to us.” He stretched to clap Graves on the shoulder. Cassidy was six feet tall, and few men towered over him as Graves did.
Graves nodded, his jaw still tight, and beckoned to his now immobile men. Cassidy surveyed their surroundings, turning slowly in a circle as all fourteen men huddled, the rest slowly making room for Farooq, their guide.
Not for the first time, Cassidy wished he'd bypassed the army entirely, had Iftikhar recruit a guide and set out alone, but that hadn't been an option.
The huddle broke, and the men lined up, scuffing their feet in the thick dust, their scarves wrapped round their mouths. Cassidy cursed the fools who'd planned this for not thinking of horses. That would at least have put the riders above most of the dust. The thought led to another. He tapped Graves' arm; “Do your men have night-goggles?”
Graves shook his head. “No, I've got the only pair. You?”
“Yeah. But just two pairs are no use. The men could march over a cliff in the dark.” He shook his head disgustedly. What a cock-up, he thought. Other conflicts taking the headlines had also taken much of the budget. Resources had become increasingly stretched as little by little, cutbacks had bitten into efficiency. Cassidy sighed. “Get used to it,” he muttered, too quietly for Graves to hear. “These men are all you'll get.” Six of the squaddies marched in front of him, six behind, Farooq at the front, followed by Graves. High overhead, a buzzard mewed.
Soon after, they entered a narrow valley, parallel to the source of the shots. “A perfect place for an ambush,” Graves signaled with a look, and Cassidy nodded, watching for the flash of sun on metal or glass. It was unlikely that the local bandits would be so clumsy. They had spent hundreds of years fighting the British, and the Russians, and now they fought the Americans and, once more, the British. When they weren't fighting each other.
Cresting a rise, the squad emerged into the open, walking along a narrow ridge. One side fell away, so that they walked on the side of a steep hill of dangerously unstable scree, partly covered with sparse scrub, upon which a few skeletal-ribbed goats munched. Cassidy saw no sign of any owners, so he hoped fervently that these were wild animals.
One of the men slid down the slope, turning his ankle. After a few minutes rest, he limped on, but their pace was slow. When another man twisted his ankle, Cassidy checked his map and compass again, and said quietly to Graves, “We don't have time for this. The first squad took it fairly easy, but they've got twenty-four hours start. We must catch them up. If necessary we'll leave the next man who gets injured behind to take his chances.”
Graves' eyes narrowed, but like Cassidy he kept his voice low, no matter how much emotion crept in. “With respect, sir, I guess you're used to working alone, or with better-trained men. My boys have had basic training, but not to SAS or whatever level's needed here, and they've had no time to prepare. Meeting every Tuesday night and two weekends a month back in the UK is not enough to prepare them for being alone, in hostile territory, miles from any kind of support.”
Cassidy nodded curtly.
Graves continued. “We've only been here a month. Long enough to see for ourselves how dangerous it is, but not long enough to learn how to deal with it. While you were on your way out, we had too many conflicting orders: Wait for you; get into the mountains; observe radio silence; don't involve the Americans. Given such contradictions, we had no option but to split the platoon and send half of the men ahead. And no one has told us why we've had to hotfoot it up here from Kandahar. Sir.”
Cassidy pulled a half-sympathetic, half-rueful face. “Welcome to the British Army, Lieutenant. Any army, any period in history. No one's criticizing you, but sending less than twenty men into the mountains with just a set of co-ordinates, and no instructions except, 'Look out for anything unusual' is barmy, and we're only compounding the folly of sending them in.”
“Why didn't a big shot like you get us more help?” Graves asked in such a tone of wonderment that it robbed the words of their sting.
“Why do you think I spent so long in with your CO?” Cassidy asked. “We were supposed to move out at four AM, but I spent thirty minutes begging for more men. There simply aren't any. The ones who haven't been sent to the Balkans have gone to Iraq, to help the Americans fight the latest uprising in Tikrit. What's left are needed back in Kandahar. No disrespect to your men, but if there had been more experienced soldiers available, I'd have taken them.” His throat irritated by the dry air and dust, Cassidy coughed, and swigged from his water bottle.
“I wondered what all the shouting was about,” Graves said with a slight grin. He pointed at Cassidy's uniform, devoid of anything but a major's insignia. “Interesting regiment.”
Cassidy grinned. “You mean where am I from? I wondered how long it would take you to work up the nerve to ask. I'm just a civil servant.” Which was technically true. “Assistant to the Assistant to the Secretary of the Under Secretary of State. Chief tea maker.”
“Bollocks are you!” Graves turned away, his color rising and his jaw set. He kicked angrily at a stone. “You're as much a civil servant as much as I'm a Martian.”
“I suppose you're too young to remember Northern Ireland during the Troubles?”
Graves stared. “You served there?”
“I did,” Cassidy said grimly. “It's not a memory that gives me any pleasure. Whenever we went out on patrol, it never felt like we had enough men, or were fully prepared. Anything could happen, and we knew it. Anyone who seemed friendly might have a concealed gun. You learned to look under every car, including your own. The point, Digger, is that if we survive this mission, you still won't ever feel prepared. Get used to that feeling. When it's not there, that's when you become complacent. That's when you're most likely to die. But if you survive, like me, you become a useful asset. The army seconded me to the political sections, and it's a near permanent thing, but yes, I'm a civil servant. Just like you and everyone else who works for the government.” He stared at Graves. “Imply that I'm a liar again, and when we get back, I'll break your jaw.”
Graves muttered, “Sorry,” and looked away.
To ease the tension, Cassidy said, “This country's had every misfortune possible; occupied for centuries by British, Russians, and now the UN; internecine strife between ruling warlords. They even have drought.” His laugh was sad.
Graves nodded, still stiff with resentment. “The landscape looks…what's the word? Blasted?” he said at last, when the silence threatened to become awkward.
They resumed their trek. Two more men turned ankles, but Graves, casting dark looks at Cassidy, urged them to limp on.
The silence was broken by a clatter of rocks tumbling down, and several of the men flinched. Cassidy stood statue-still, every nerve straining, listening for the sounds of men moving. When he was satisfied that the rocks had simply fallen and not been dislodged, Graves waved the squad on.
The hills shimmered in the heat. The sky was a vaulted arch, so fiercely blue that it hurt unshielded eyes. The ground rose and dropped, twisted and turned, as if determined that only the fittest and bravest would walk it.
Graves stopped panting, and drew enough breath to echo his earlier statement, “It may be blasted, but it's beautiful.” Lifting his scarf, he spat. “Even if all you can smell or taste is dust.”
“But it's a beauty like that of a poisonous snake,” Cassidy said. “It'll kill you at any moment. Its people are as inconstant as the land.” He added, “There will be less dust the higher we climb, especially as we emerge from the rain-shadow cast by the mountains.”
They emerged from a long ravine into open ground, in the shadow of a rock that was vertical on one side, and a forty-five degree slope on the other. Graves said, “The men could do with a meal. They had us packing our rucksacks at three this morning.” He grinned. “You probably know how much fun it is packing sixty-five kilos in the dark.”
Try doing it in the snow sometime. Cassidy thought of a nasty mission in the Norwegian winter, but only nodded. “Twenty minutes.” He glanced at his watch. Men on the move needed at least four meals a day to balance all the calories they burned. All the more reason to keep the breaks short, he thought.
Graves signaled the men to halt. They dropped to their knees in the shelter of the rock, out of the wind. Cassidy dragged air into his-oxygen starved lungs. He'd trained at altitude before, but never this high. And they had still higher to climb. Although the others were probably ten years his junior, they were breathing just as heavily as he was. One man lay prone on the ground. As Graves posted guards, they unclipped their packs, stretched, and broke out their rations.
After a few minutes, Cassidy took a cautious mouthful of chemically reheated shepherd's pie. Chewing, he looked up to see Graves studying him, and raised an eyebrow in silent question.
“What happens,” Graves said, “if you're buried under an avalanche?”
There was a long silence then Cassidy said, “You'd better make sure that doesn't happen.”
“That's your fallback plan?” Graves asked with quiet fury. “My men are here for eight months, supposedly on police duties. The regular army sneer at them as 'weekend warriors,' yet with no warning they're marched halfway to nowhere and expected to -”
“Lieutenant,” Cassidy warned.
Graves fell silent, folding his now empty ration tray over and over again into an ever-smaller square. He repeated, “What happens if you're buried under an avalanche? Do we abort?”
Cassidy stared into space, thinking furiously. He said, “If you repeat any of this, you'll spend the rest of your life under house arrest.” Graves looked so serious, that Cassidy almost laughed. “Where to begin?” He smiled at Graves. “At least you've been spared sitting in the August Bank Holiday traffic jams.”
“One thing I don't miss,” Graves said. “That where you were Monday night?”
Cassidy nodded. “I've barely slept in forty-eight hours.”
Graves chuckled. “And there I was bitching about getting up at three. Sorry.”
“Don't worry,” Cassidy said. “I sat in a traffic jam, having a blazing row with my girlfriend over my supposed commitment phobia. My spare mobile rang.” He smiled at the memory of Caitlin's incredulous, “How many bloody mobiles have you got?” His smile faded. “I was summoned to a briefing at COBRA,” he continued. “The Joint HQ -”
“I know what COBRA is,” Graves said harshly.
They stiffened at a muffled roar in the distance. For perhaps twenty seconds neither man spoke, then Cassidy resumed. “A satellite had photographed a large heat source. A huge number of bodies, maybe ten thousand, in the mountains northeast of Tora Bora. On the next orbit, they'd disappeared.” He sighed. “I take it you realize the…concern this caused?”
Graves smiled thinly, “Oh, yes. One of the most sensitive areas in the world, and they have a vanishing army. That's why they're panicking?”
Cassidy nodded, impressed at how quickly Graves caught on. “That, and the fact they've no idea who the bodies are. Not knowing anything scares our elected masters more witless than usual.”
Graves smiled. “All the usual suspects are accounted for?”
Cassidy nodded. “Until we find who or what is in the mountains, no one is to know, not even the Americans. So radio silence, and absolute secrecy.”
“What happens when we find them?” Graves asked.
Cassidy said, “That depends on what we find.”
While the men finished their food, and lit cigarettes, Cassidy stood and loosened up with Tai Chi exercises, ignoring the other's smiles. Despite his aches, he felt alive. Anything could happen. He always felt this way at the start of a new mission. Maybe this time he wouldn't end it feeling like a slowly deflating balloon.
Turning away from the others, he took Caitlin's picture from inside his pocket. Kissing his fingers he touched them to the photo. “Bye babe,” he murmured, “It was good, but it's over.” He wished he'd ended it more gracefully than dumping her publicly on the motorway.
He became aware that Graves was watching him with interest. “That the ex-girlfriend?”
Cassidy nodded. He studied Graves, looking so long and hard at the young man that the Lieutenant blinked, then looked away.
Cassidy clearly came to a decision. He grinned wolfishly. “If I was Intelligence, as you think,” he held up a hand, “which I'm not, of course, but if I was, I'd go mad without someone to talk to. The security services discourage Catholicism, unless the priest is vetted. Can't give confession to the unauthorized.” He chuckled grimly at Graves' face.
“Is that true?” Graves whispered.
Cassidy smiled. “Of course. I never lie.”
Graves laughed softly. “Which is itself a lie.”
Cassidy said, still whispering, “Once an agent found out about Hitler's v-weapons, but she couldn't tell anyone without compromising security. When a V-1 killed a member of her family, her guilt caused a nervous breakdown. Unless someone is a psychopath, it's impossible to keep secrets, or assume another identity for long periods, without some kind of safety valve. It can be a mirror, or a picture. Everyone needs someone to talk to.” He tore the picture up, and buried the pieces.
“Who will you talk to now?”
“You,” Cassidy said. Relishing Graves' shocked look, he said, “Come on, time to move on.”
Graves lifted up his backpack to muted groans from the men.
“Make sure you bury your cigarette butts, and any other rubbish,” Cassidy ordered.
As they neared noon and climbed ever higher it grew colder as the biting wind that cut through their thermals gathered strength. The only sounds apart from an occasional muttered comment were the buzzard crying in the wind, and, suddenly in the distance, the high-pitched chopping of a helicopter's rotors. “Trouble, sir.” Graves said, looking young, green, and very scared.
Cassidy asked, “How many choppers do the tribesmen have?”
Graves grimaced sheepishly. “It's ours.”
“Don't worry,” Cassidy said. “We're all a bit twitchy.”
A soldier signaled, waving to the northeast. Cassidy saw smoke rising in a thin twisting stream, torn by the wind, but still holding together, so thin and slight it would have been invisible, if they hadn't been looking for it. Even so, they were lucky to have seen it. “The first patrol?” Graves said. Cassidy nodded.
They quickened their pace, and every time they slowed, Graves urged his men on. They rounded a bend, and saw bodies strewn across the defile. A small fire burning in the midst of the bodies was the source of the smoke.
Graves waved a signal and the men ducked, two of them running crouched to the bodies, while the rest dived, lying prone in a star-shape, guns pointing outward in all directions. The runners checked for identity tags, and scuttled back.
“Five men, sir,” the lead soldier, a Stan Laurel-look-alike in his late twenties with horn-rimmed glasses and an oversized adam's apple said, “Ours and theirs. Weapons are gone.” He looked pale, swallowed several times. “They've been shot. No mutilations.”
“They don't take ears, or scalps, soldier,” Cassidy said. Stan's face went blank. Cassidy said, more kindly, “Pashtuns, Uzbeks, other tribes; they're all skilled, brave warriors who fought the supposedly superior Russians to a standstill for ten years.” Stan looked like he'd swallowed a wasp, but shut his mouth. Good, Cassidy thought. The roasting's taken his mind off those corpses.
“But it was locals who did it?” Graves asked.
Cassidy shrugged. “Probably. Most of them are gangsters of some type. They won't have changed their habits, even though the Taliban are no longer in power. If it was them, they'll be selling the missing weapons in Peshawar before you can say knife.” The Pakistani border markets were the main channels through which goods flowed in and out of Southern Afghanistan.
“More bodies there,” another soldier pointed up a defile.
Cassidy followed the soldier who scurried to check them out. He turned one over, and a young Afghan stared back with sightless eyes.
“Sir,” someone hissed as the others joined them. “Looks like they took their wounded with them.” He pointed to drag marks in the sand.
Graves and Cassidy exchanged looks. Graves asked, “Do we follow?” and Cassidy nodded.
“Sir,” the medic called, “Take a look at this.” It was another Afghan body. The orderly's finger highlighted tiny wounds, surrounded by oddly shaped burn marks.
Graves hissed an in-drawn breath. “Seen these before?” As Cassidy shook his head, Graves said, “Would you say if you had?”
Cassidy allowed him a small smile. “Maybe.” He added, “How many men from the patrol?”
Graves counted the corpses, “Four bodies,” he said grimly. “The guide's one of them. So nine men missing.”
They should have waited, Cassidy thought. Orders or not, they should have waited and sent us all together. Thirteen men are too easily picked off.
They quickly piled rocks over the bodies, Cassidy glancing discreetly at his watch. Graves said a simple but heartfelt prayer, his voice quavering as he said, “They shall not grow old.”
They moved on, the sound of their laboring breath and their boots crunching on stones the only noises in the stillness. Cassidy was aware of every passing second, and that the fate of the first group lay with his men finding them as quickly as possible. But he was also aware that he might have to abandon them, rather than endanger the mission.
Fourteen months earlier.
MaryAnn Stanford chewed absently on a granola bar. It had grown gradually hotter throughout the day, thunderheads building from the east until the sky was an inky black. By mid-afternoon, forked lightning stabbed the ground.
“'Nother twister there, Freddy.” MaryAnn peered through the windshield. “Been a lot of 'em lately,” she muttered, switching the radio off.
It started to rain. In less than a minute, raindrops were bouncing three inches off the pickup's hood. “Shoot!” She jumped as a hundred yards away a lightning bolt gouged up clumps of soil. Her old black retriever lay on the front passenger seat. He whimpered, trying to bury his nose in his blanket. “It's okay, baby,” She fondled his ears absently.
She swerved to avoid the shape that loomed from the curtain of rain, and wrestled with the steering wheel, fighting to keep the pickup right side up as the world tilted crazily from side to side, before ending up in a drainage ditch that ran parallel to the road. She opened the window and leaned out. “Yuh moron! Yuh coulda killed us both!”
He wandered closer, standing naked in the downpour. It took her a while to realize that he was deformed. He had too-short legs, a curved spine, and a flatter than normal skull with a bulge at the back, almost like an egg laid on its side. His forehead was almost non-existent, and his eyebrows perched on a thick shelf of bone.
Even from several feet away, she heard his hoarse little cries. She'd seen the look on his face before; it had been on a man whose arm had been sheared off in a thresher. The look of a man just before he was hit by the full enormity of the pain. The look of absolute, overwhelming shock.
MaryAnn remembered a school trip forty years before, to the Indianapolis Children's Museum. Although she couldn't dredge up the word, “Neanderthal” from memory, she recognized that he looked just like the models of pre-humans had in the museum dioramas. She was so distracted that she never thought of the impossibility of his presence. Although she had no children, she had strong maternal instincts, and this poor creature looked as if he needed a mother badly.
She jumped out, and they both shied at the lightning bolt that blasted the ground only yards away. He bared his teeth and shouted at it.
“C'mon! We're getting soaked here!” MaryAnn yelled.
He gave her a wary look.
She yanked open the rear passenger door of the pickup. “Git in, dammit!” She waved frantically at the doorway. Edging round her, he climbed in, with little of the nervousness she would have expected from someone like him. She'd never intended the rear bench of the pickup's elongated cabin for anything but junk, but he couldn't sit in the open bay of the flatbed. Reaching round his cowering figure, she swept candy wrappers, a McDonalds box and a pair of Freddy-chewed socks onto the floor.
She jumped in and gunned the engine. It didn't move. She tried it again, and it reared, then rolled back. At the third attempt she managed to back the pickup out.
They resumed their crawl through the rain. Lifting his head, Freddy thumped his tail. She patted his head. “You like dogs?” she asked, as if her passenger understood every word.
He said something in what sounded like the drunken slur of Russian or Portuguese. At least he could talk, even if he did look like a circus act.
“His name's Freddy,” she said, and remembering what she'd been trying to forget, her voice wobbled, “I'm taking him to the vet. He's old, an' he's shitting blood.”
He clearly understood her tone of voice, if not the words, and spoke gently, patting her arm through the gap in the seats.
Freddy growled softly. “Hey, no jealousy,” she warned the dog, pleased at the distraction. “He's not used to having a man round,” she explained, “It's always been jest me an' him.” They drove through the rain at a steady thirty.
“What's the smell?” She said after a while. “That you? Like wet fur and I dunno…” She paused. “Makes me think of food.” She chuckled. “To be honest, everything reminds me of food. It's why I shop at outsize shops.” She waved a granola bar at him. “Ya want one?” She passed it to him, and unwrapped a second one. “It ain't chocolate,” she said. “Doc Hewlett warned me off chocolate, though the zits still ain't cleared up. And I dunno if it'll help my,” she paused, thinking, “cholesterol.” She looked in the mirror. “Y'ain't s'posed to eat the wrapper!”
After an hour or so of companionable semi-silence marked by MaryAnn's occasional muttering, they passed the windmill that marked the edge of Pocona. “We're here.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “Vet's place.” She wiped her nose and eyes. Walking round to the passenger side, she opened the door and stroked Freddy's square black head. He whimpered. “Okay, baby boy,” she crooned “Momma'll stay with you.” She turned, said to her passenger, “Don't know how long I'll be. Stick around, or not.” Grunting with the effort, she lifted the dog, blanket and all. “Okay baby,” she crooned again, as Freddy started to whine. She panted, “He's only skin an' bones now, but he still weighs a ton.” Pushing the door shut, she trudged through the downpour.
The rain had slackened to a drizzle by the time she emerged. Still holding the blanket she stood by the passenger door as if unsure what to do, trudged round to the other side, and stopped. She returned to the passenger side, and holding awkwardly onto the blanket, opened the door. “Don't know what happened there,” she said, in a high tight voice, placing the empty blanket gently on the seat. Returning to the driver's side, she climbed in. Mucus ran down her nose unchecked, but she paused only to wipe her eyes.
Starting the engine, she asked, “Where ya wanna go?” He didn't answer, so she set off the way they had come. When they had driven a few miles, her grief overtook her and she cried, “I gotta stop!” She pulled over, and her entire body shook with great, heaving sobs.
The Neanderthal reached out toward her, making soft little crooning noises, but stopping just short of touching her. When her sobs showed no sign of stopping, he reached out again, but they both flinched as his hand touched her arm.
Moments passed with her still sobbing, and he reached out again. He half-flinched, but this time left his hand on her arm, and stroked her arm gently. “I guess,” she spluttered, and he took his hand away, but she couldn't finish the sentence, and he resumed stroking her arm, still crooning gently. “Funny,” she said, with a laugh that was more a sob, “Yuh prob'ly can't understand a word I'm saying, but I can talk to yuh. Then again, Freddy couldn't understand me neither. Maybe that's why I could talk to him. He couldn't tell me what a load of cack I was spouting.”
At Freddy's name, she had begun to sob again. The Neanderthal made a cautious half-movement toward the front seat, and hesitated. When she didn't protest, he climbed carefully into the front, making soothing noises, and stroking her arm. She groaned and he drew back, but she slumped over the steering wheel. When he stroked her lank hair, crooning, MaryAnn fell into his arms, clawing at him, howling her grief. They were so preoccupied that they never noticed the swirling clouds high above the car. The clouds coalesced into a vortex.
Cassidy wriggled backwards on his stomach, and when he was well away from the edge, stood and dusted down his fatigues. Below them was a village, an adobe compound with lookout towers and gun slits around a square, nestled in the valley. “No adults about,” he said. “Just children and a few scrawny hens.”
The squad marched on, Cassidy occasionally glancing over his shoulder, although he couldn't say why he felt so spooked.
At noon Graves checked his GPS. Farooq knelt in the direction Graves indicated, and prayed to Mecca. As Farooq stood one of the men pointed. Cassidy followed the soldier's outstretched arm.
“Looks like a dart,” Graves said. It flickered in and out of sight and turned end over end. It vanished, and Graves said, “Experimental plane?”
“No idea,” Cassidy said. “Nothing I've ever seen moves like that.” For the first time he felt as afraid as the people in Downing Street must have. Graves waved the men onwards.
Graves leaned conspiratorially toward Cassidy, clearly wanting to talk. “How did you end up not a spook?”
“Before I joined the civil service,” Cassidy stressed the last four words. “I served in the Royal Greenjackets. I made major, then took a career break to attend university. Never went back but was allowed to keep my rank in return for making myself available as an advisor.” Graves looked impressed. Cassidy said, “What do you do, when you're not playing weekend warrior?”
Graves glared at him, then grinned back. “Snob,” he jeered. “I'm a Phys Ed lecturer. But I've always wanted to serve my country, probably in reaction to my parents. They say we either behave like them, or behave completely the opposite.”
“Your parents don't approve of your being here?”
“Ma's never forgiven me for joining the oppressive war machine, even on a part-time basis,” Graves said, grinning. “She was a peace protester at Greenham Common back in '83. My partner's not exactly happy with me being here, either. I live with someone. Lived,” he corrected himself. “I don't know if she'll wait eight months. Does your - oh, no partner, is there? What do your parents think of your being a…” he paused for effect, “civil servant?”
“They don't think anything,” Cassidy said. “My mother's dead.” Seeing Graves was about to offer condolences, he interrupted. “I was born in a London squat, apparently, to a girl who couldn't name my father.” She'd left him only her genes, and a burning desire to be more than what he had started as. Seeing Graves' shocked look, he said, “What?”
Graves shrugged. “Not the glamorous background I'd have expected for one of your lot,” he said.
“My lot?” Cassidy said, deliberately misunderstanding. “Do I look like a film star?” He added, “My eyes are too close together, my lips are too thin, and my nose is too big.”
“And it's been broken,” Graves said.
“Twice. Thank you for pointing that out.” Cassidy said. “So you see, I'm far too ugly to be a spook.”
“You're not ugly, you're just…” Graves floundered.
“Forgettable,” Graves agreed. “Which is perfect for a man in your line of work.” He grinned. “And you know I don't mean a film star.”
“My work is as mundane as any other civil servant's.” Cassidy didn't explain that much of his work was state-sponsored petty crime. Theft, burglary and observation with some occasional violence, unpleasant but necessary.
“Why do you do it?”
Cassidy shrugged. “Not for money or glamor, there isn't much. Maybe a mix of idealism and vocation.” Perhaps this mission would re-infuse him with some of what had seeped away.
“You must have broken every rule in the book, telling me all this,” Graves said.
“What rule?” Cassidy asked. “You don't know how old I am, what my name really is, or anything. And I'm a good judge of character. You won't tell anyone.” Graves raised an eyebrow, but Cassidy changed the subject abruptly. “The lads have done well today. There's always a danger that men will buckle in the field. No amount of training can really prepare them.” He added, “It's not for me to tell them that they did well, of course.”
“Thanks,” Graves flushed.
Clearing the tree line, they walked again on bare, hard rock following the trail left by an occasional flattened shrub. “This is too easy,” Cassidy muttered to Graves, looking up from his map and compass. “The trail is leading us right to the coordinates where we need to go. Keep the men alert.”
Dense, thick forests now lay below, in every direction. Cassidy said, “These must be the remnants of the cedar forests I was told once covered Afghanistan.” He never knew what faint noise alerted him, but something did. He threw himself flat, shouting, “Down! Down!”

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