Hi, and welcome to my next stop on this week’s Worlds of Wonder Author Hop! I hope you enjoy your stop here; please check below for the other stops on the Hop. Today’s stop is another excerpt from First Cause–this time, from later in the story. Enjoy!
May 25th 2008
Orach sat with his back against the cave wall, silently regarding the assault rifle he cradled in his lap. Though it was nearly June, the weather on the steppes of Central Asia had lapsed into a wintry freeze; the floor of the cave felt like lightly dusted ice as the wind howled outside and the temperature around him hovered near thirty degrees. The men who had previously occupied the cave–the battered corpses that lay in a pile fifty feet away–had been less aptly dressed for the Afghan winter than the Terranauts who had taken them by surprise; the material synthesized for Orach and his men had been well designed. Nevertheless, even extensive temperature orientation could not prepare the Terranauts to feel more than minimally acclimated to the harshness of the local climate. Orach could not imagine a lifetime in such a climate; he looked forward to the warmer temperatures typical of the territory the Directors were planning to commandeer. He was unsure precisely which area of the so-called Middle East the Directors were planning to take; he was only aware of the most rudimentary details of the greater Terra Project, just enough that he might have some strategic understanding of his purpose in bearing freezing temperatures in an Afghan cave. He was the commander of roughly two hundred Terranauts, separated into half a dozen groups that, each several hundred miles apart, formed a loose perimeter to the north and east of the Arabian Peninsula. Their greater aim was to secure an area of land from which an assault might be launched, in coordination with several other groups, on a target area to be chosen by the Directors.
As if prompted by his lamenting the cold, it began to snow outside the cave.
Slinging the gun over his shoulder, Orach hopped to his feet and waggled his arms to warm up. He walked to the mouth of the cave, whose ceiling was mere inches above his head, and looked outside. The snow fell lightly but in large flakes, and it was already beginning to accumulate on the ground. Even less inclined toward introspection than the average Terranaut, whose society didn’t encourage introspection, Orach found himself easily bored when faced with a lack of interactive stimuli. When Orach became bored, he became sullen; it was a short step, for Orach, from sullenness to violence. As such, he was grimly pleased to see a lone figure plodding toward him in the whitening distance. Studying the shape, he saw that the man was not especially tall and that his emaciation was evident even through his heavy gear. He was surely not a Terranaut.
Moreover, he didn’t appear to be aware of Orach’s presence, which was almost certainly cloaked by the relative darkness of the cave’s interior. The only light in the cave was cast by a small portable spotlight, obtained from the cave’s deceased prior inhabitants, that stood at a forty-five degree angle fifteen feet from where Orach stood. Pressing his back against the sidewall of the cave’s mouth, Orach looked sideways toward the approaching figure, now less than fifty feet away. The intensifying wind now making the snow appear to fall diagonally instead of directly toward the ground; the man’s pace quickened in keeping with the snow, but he seemed to be favoring his left leg. Grinning, Orach slung his rifle across his back; he would not need it.
Kyonakh Sharipov was tired, cold and hungry–and lonely. Born and raised in the recalcitrant republic of Chechnya, his father, descended from a Chechen war hero, had named him “Knight”, in expectation that he would join his nation’s long and persistent struggle for independence from Russian rule. Kyonakh had, for much of his life, considered himself a pacifist—until October 7th of 2005. Kyonakh, then seventeen, had been preparing to join his mother and sister at the dinner table when an explosion shook the floor of their small house. It fell just outside the window, and seconds later another shell fell through their roof. Kyonakh was thrown to his bedroom floor, his ears ringing from the blast and his mind racing in panic; scarcely a minute later, the shelling had stopped and an eerie silence had taken its place. There were no sirens or screams from outside, as the Sharipovs lived roughly a quarter of a mile from the nearest house. Kyonakh, trying to gather his senses, staggered to his feet and scrambled toward the place where their dinner table had been; it was now covered in what looked like hundreds of pounds of rubble. He dug for what seemed like forever, finally happening upon his mother’s hand. It was cold despite the relative warmth of the outside air…and then Kyonakh discovered that it was detached from her arm.
Kyonakh’s next coherent memory from that afternoon was waking up several hours later, lying in the grass twenty feet from his house, his face covered in tears and his hands covered in blood–his own and that of the women in his family. By the time emergency vehicles arrived, he was nearly two miles away; he had simply wandered, dazed, until he could no longer walk, and then sank into a deep and turbulent sleep. He repeated this pattern for over ten miles, until he was picked up by a truckload of men who found him lying in a dewy patch of grass near the border of Kazakhstan two days later. The men were rebels, determined to fight off the yoke of outside rule and establish a Central Asian Islamic Republic from the ashes of the long-dead Soviet Union and the northern regions of ancient Persia.
Now, three years later, Kyonakh staggered through driving snow toward the cave in which he’d resided for nearly two months. His hatred of the Russians and their soldiers, of murderous European imperialists and corrupt ex-Soviets, had given way to a generalized hatred of warfare–and an even deeper hatred of winter. Only three years after having joined an Afghan-based insurgency, the specific enemy of which he had never quite been able to articulate, Kyonakh had seen enough blood and tears shed to last him several lifetimes; ninety-six hours ago, he had lost the closest friend he’d made since first taking up arms. Cradling Elias Myasi, who struggled to moan between his last breaths, Kyonakh had decided he’d had enough. He had a general sense of when European and United Nations convoys passed through the area, as well as a vague idea of their routes; the next time he happened upon a vehicle that traveled under the authority of a European flag, he would lay down his arms and lay himself down in the middle of the road. He would offer himself unto their mercies, claim conscription and hope he was allowed citizenship in a more peaceful land. He had no idea where he would end up, but he knew that he could no longer live where everyone seemed to be constantly in harm’s way and the rhetoric of nationalism seemed only a thinly veiled excuse for the shedding of civilian blood on both sides. For the first time in what seemed like forever, he once again found himself repulsed by violence rather than awash in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight; the memories of things he’d seen and done in the past three years began to haunt him like the nightmares of another man. Staggering through the snow, he shuddered to think of the eyes of the last man he’d shot at close range, whose broad cheekbones and almond-shaped eyes reminded him of a childhood neighbor with whom he used to eat lunch in the grass. His anticipation of no longer being always on alert–of no longer having to shoot or be shot, of no longer having to scan every visual angle for a sniper or assailant–in short, his anticipation of having a life he might actually somewhat enjoy–only seemed to intensify his physical and mental exhaustion.
As Orach watched the man approach, his sullen boredom gave way to gleeful anticipation. He would toy with this one, rather than quickly dispose of him; he would disarm the man and exorcise his boredom by making the man suffer. It had been a while since he had made someone suffer.
The snowfall had gotten extremely heavy, and Kyonakh was trying to walk faster, but all he could do was lengthen his strides–which seemed to have little effect; his legs felt leaden with fatigue, and his left ankle was recovering from a recent sprain. He was pleased to think he saw movement in the mouth of the cave; he craved company, something to take his mind off of his ankle and his longing for peace. Even the less communicative or more moody of his comrades would be a welcome presence in the cold darkness; in his tired state, it did not even occur to him that the shape in the cave’s mouth might not be an ally.
Orach stood and watched calmly, clenching and unclenching his fists as his mouth widened into a grin. The man paused for a second, his head tilted at a slight angle, perhaps realizing that the figure he saw did not belong to his group; Orach smiled more broadly, his eyes still gleaming with malice, and extended his arm above his head in a welcoming gesture.
Kyonakh paused. The man seemed surprisingly large and was wearing an unfamiliar uniform; something was wrong. The man raised his arm and presented an open palm–seemingly attempting to reassure him from afar. But why would that be necessary? Kyonakh reached for his assault rifle and steadied himself on his stronger foot. He called into the snow. “Who is there? Identify yourself.”
The tall man, who wore a synthetic looking bodysuit and seemed untroubled by the cold, simply stepped out of the mouth of the cave and disappeared into the driving snow. Kyonakh raised his rifle. “I am armed,” he called out. “Identify yourself at once!” His adrenaline began to surge, despite his nearly debilitating exhaustion. He readied his rifle and walked toward the cave, his step energized by his sense of danger. Suddenly he found his lungs half empty–and himself sailing toward the ground, wrapped in the arms of what he saw fit to assume was the tall man he had seen in the mouth of the cave.
As they landed in the snow, Orach turned his shoulders to increase the force with which he drove the startled soldier into the ground. With his arms still in a vice grip around the man’s ribcage, he planted one foot firmly and rose to his feet, lifting the much shorter man effortlessly into the air. The wind’s howl had increased to nearly a shriek, so Orach could not hear the soldier’s grunt of pain and surprise–he could, however, feel his ribcage contract suddenly and struggle to expand.
Kyonakh felt his concentration dwindle as he struggled to take in oxygen; his attacker’s arms felt like steel cables. The snow, driven by ferocious slabs of wind, battered him mercilessly upon the exposed parts of his face; all of a sudden it seemed ten degrees colder than when it had first begun to snow. He struggled and kicked his legs, but the man was nearly a foot taller than he was and Kyonakh’s attempted heel-butts seemed to glance harmlessly off of his thighs. He thrust his head backward, hoping to land a distracting blow to his assailant’s nose; the man simply wagged his head out of the way as his body shook with–laughter?
Orach chuckled at the man’s pathetic attempts to strike him. He felt the man lose strength and tightened his grip–carefully, however, as he did not want his prey to lose consciousness yet.
A mild state of delirium began to descend upon Kyonakh, visions of his boyhood home floating behind his half-lidded eyes. He felt a strange sense of calm as his consciousness began to wane; he still felt bitterly cold, but his mind seemed to have lost the will to fight–instead retreating into the world of memory, attempting to soothe him with pictures of his younger years and deceased loved ones. He almost willingly succumbed to the memory of a more peaceful time, his impending loss of consciousness beginning to lose its urgency. And then he felt one of his ribs crack.
Orach began to walk toward the cave, still holding the struggling soldier in his arms and intermittently tightening and releasing his grip on the man. Suddenly, he felt a slight jarring in the man’s torso and a soft whump that reverberated silently through the man’s clothing. He noticed blithely that the man, whose struggling had tapered off, opened his mouth and attempted vainly to cry out. Orach supposed that two or three of the man’s ribs were now broken inward, though not far enough to puncture a lung—just enough to cause great pain.
Kyonakh’s force of will–the strength of resolve that had first allowed him to resist taking up arms and then to survive as a soldier despite an essentially pacifistic personality–the resolve with which he had once vowed to fight imperialism and foreign incursion, and with which he later decided to leave the life of fighting and death behind—all of this suddenly rose within him, invigorating him with a determination not to perish in the snowy mountains of Central Asia. Determination, and moreover anger.
With his last words on this earth, Elias Myasi had instructed Kyonakh to take from his pockets the picture he carried of his family, along with the knife he had hunted with since childhood; this latter object, Kyonakh suddenly remembered, was tucked into the long, narrow pocket in the side of his pants. Kyonakh raised his left thigh toward his chest and subtly let his left arm dangle toward the ground; he reached into his pocket and pulled out the six-inch weapon, turning it in his palm so that its serrated blade faced the stranger who seemed to take such glee in causing him pain.
Orach felt the soldier’s arm go limp, collapsing toward the ground; he released his grip slightly, tucking his chin toward his chest as the driving snow changed direction and sandblasted his cheek. It was nearly impossible to see more than ten feet in any direction, but he knew he was mere feet away from the cave. He barely noticed the slight movements of the man’s left arm; he dismissed the man’s rising left leg as more agonized writhing. And then he felt a blinding, piercing pain, deep in the intersection of his hip and upper thigh. In shock and pain, he released his grip on the man.
Kyonakh landed on the ground with a painful thump as the man screamed–Kyonakh could hear his scream, even through the driving storm—and turned to see the man clutch his thigh, from which blood had already begun to seep profusely. The enormous man, infuriated, lunged toward him and slammed his hands down upon Kyonakh’s shoulders, lifting him with frightening ease several feet into the air. Kyonakh drove his heel into the man’s thigh at the exact point from which blood oozed through his strange uniform; predictably, he was released. He sprung to his feet and raced for his dead comrades—how could this one man have possibly killed all of them?—and reached for one of their guns.
Orach could not recall the last time he had suffered serious pain at the hands of another human being. Even as a child, he’d grown uncommonly strong and tall at such an early age that many of his instructors and superiors either feared him or selected him as an extension of their own personal power. He had suffered mild injuries–abrasions and the like–in altercations with his peers, but he had not lost a fight in nearly two decades; he had not felt pain of this magnitude in far longer than that. He was nearly blind with rage…and yet behind his rage hovered a fog of self-doubt, an emotion with which he was almost completely unfamiliar. The only thing to do, the only thing he could possibly do, was to punish the source of this unwanted emotion. He was even more determined than before to make the man suffer.
It didn’t occur to him to remember the rifles that lay strewn around the bodies of the Afghan soldiers in the cave; he looked up to see Kyonakh Sharipov pointing one at him.
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