Chapter 5 – Agent

© Copyright 2015

Anna went to her quarters and prepared for sleep. But though her eyes were closed she was not drowsing. Via Tiara and Pegasus she was roaming the land and skies outside. Including physical and electronic “vision” of four huge vans which had arrived from battalion headquarters in Jalalabad some 70 kilometers or 45 miles to the west.

The real reason Anna didn’t want to socialize that night was that she’d heard that a post-mortem unit in the vans was on its way to examine the bodies of the men she’d killed. After analyzing the cause of death, they’d also stitch them together for burial. And for the sad task of notifying their kin.

But they were forensic specialists as well as mortuary doctors. They would fingerprint the men, collect their DNA, photograph their faces. This data would be stored in the Army’s country intelligence database where it would be compared to previous activities where such data had been collected. This might help them to solve cold cases and see if these men had been questioned about military actions.

Such data could also help to build association charts, to discover and expand how the enemy was organized into larger units. This was especially useful to guard against these larger units attacking the U. S. forces and others.

The clothing and weaponry of the men, and the empty cartridge cases they’d left behind, would also be analyzed.

The first half hour or so told her little new. The crews inside the vans had only been working for a few hours. Tiara could only read what had been entered into the van’s database and transmitted elsewhere.

This annoyed Anna. Then she became doubly annoyed. She was acting like a child denied instant gratification.

Restless, she stood and went invisible. Outside she called down Pegasus who, as usual, was hovering invisible a few feet above her. She enfolded herself with his force fields and sent herself a hundred yards upward. From here she could see the entire base and its near surroundings.

She watched for a few minutes but saw no threats or anything else unusual, at least on the outside, even though she used Peg’s visual, infrared, and gravity radar sight. She avoided looking at the buildings with his gravity radar sight, however. It let her see inside them. It would tell her nothing she wanted to know, and it would embarrass her to see people at private functions.

Then she sent Pegasus a mile high. From here she could see many miles around. She focused briefly on the three enemy camps and the village of Baha Tor at the near entrance to KhyberPass. Nothing interesting.

She zoomed his senses in on each of the three enemy camps. The camp of the men she’d attacked was empty and showed signs of hasty exit, with debris lying around. The mountain camp in the Pass had only half a dozen people, two of them viewing the pass with binoculars. The third village had only a dozen men there, chatting, eating, busy with weapons. There were no indications they planned to attack the base or anyone else.

She detected no cell phone activity in any of the three camps. She was a bit surprised, but not much. Cell phones were becoming common in the larger Afghan cities but had barely penetrated the rest of the country. She imagined, however, that it was only a matter of time before they did.

There were about a dozen active phones in Baha Tor. She listened to the conversations for a few minutes but only heard innocuous speech. None of them seemed to have the kind of coded references which would suggest they feared being spied upon. This was unsurprising, since the idea of such spying was not yet common in Afghanistan. That innocence, however, she thought, would not last much longer.

She lofted Pegasus a few more miles high and watched activity up to the edge of Jalalabad to the west and Peshawar to the east. As usual there were several hundred vehicles traveling the Jalalabad-Peshawar highway.

The sun was setting now, throwing long shadows eastward. These highlighted the huts of the dozens of small villages standing in the greener swath of land to the north of the highway, between it and the meandering Kabul river a few miles to the north. It also highlighted the people outside, their shadows stretching long.

She lowered and swept along the green area from a quarter mile up, idly scanning the scene below, not searching for anything, just looking.

She did notice that in several villages a few people were walking between their village and the river. Curious, she dropped lower. This showed her that they were ferrying water from the river back to the villages. Those villages did not have wells dug nearby.

A few were wheeling small vehicles like wheelbarrows which carried kegs and jugs of water. Most lugged colorful plastic jugs suspended from handles. Some were children.

Her eyes were drawn to two of these, straggling far behind the others. They were apparently nine or ten, and small enough that they carried small jugs by their handles in one hand and shared a large jug between them.

On impulse, a vague memory of a fairy tale nudging her, she dropped down in front of them about a hundred feet, taking on the appearance of an old woman clad all in flowing black, similar to but less anonymous than the all-covering burqa. From one hand she held the handle of another plastic bucket, once bright blue but faded and scratched now. It was made of a force field but as she hobbled she had Suit transmute air to water inside it. The jug filled up halfway and stopped. This was enough for her purpose.

As the children neared her, moving slowly but not as slowly as the old woman, she pretended to stumble. Trying to catch herself, she dropped the bucket. She gave a distressed cry as the water poured out, darkening the sparsely grassed earth.

She knelt and hauled the bucket upright. Looking inside, she moaned. Only an inch or so of water covered the bottom.

She sat down beside it, hunched over, her head in her hands.

The children passed her by. Looking up through the image of straggly grey hair, translucent to her but opaque to them, she could see them looking at her. They stopped, set down their jugs, and whispered between them.

Decision made, they took up their burdens and returned to her. Beside her, they set them down again and spoke to her.

She looked up and them and smiled, her teeth whole but yellowed.

“Hello. How are you?”

They said the Pashto equivalent of “OK.” Then the little girl, who might be a year older than the boy, said. “Did you lose your water?”

“Oh, it’s nothing. I can get more.”

The two children looked at each other. The girl said, “We can give you one of ours.” She pointed at one of the smaller buckets.

“Oh, that’s so kind of you. I am very tired. But are you sure?”

The little boy said, “Yes. Here.”

He lifted one of the smaller buckets and poured out half its contents. Then he poured half of the other small bucket into it, so that both small buckets still had some water.

“Bye,” said the little girl. The two children picked up their burdens and began to walk away.

“Wait. Let me walk with you.”

They stopped to let her catch up with them. In the half or more mile she asked them questions about themselves. Did they go to school? Did they like it? What else did they do? Play games?

At first they were reluctant to talk, but that quickly passed.

At one of the small square mud huts near the highway they stopped.

“Well, here we are.”

The door opened and a young woman stood in the doorway.

“Vahida, Shabaz, who is this?”

The two children turned to Anna, stricken. They had not been courteous enough to ask her name.

Anna said, “I am Setarah. You must be their mother.”

“Yes.” The woman paused. “Would you like to share our meal?”

“Only if I may contribute.”

The woman looked at Anna’s hands and saw only the water bucket.

“Yes, of course. We’d be happy to share. Come in. I’ll get my husband.”

Inside she hurried to another doorway, an open one, and called her husband to come meet their guest. He told her he’d be right there. A few minutes later he was, wiping his hands on a soiled once-red rag, now darkened by oil and dirt.

He studied Anna carefully, then smiled. “Welcome to our home. I am Arksalakan Azizi.”

“I am Setarah. It is a pleasure and honor to join you, Honorable Azizi.”

“Please pardon me for a few moments. Please sit.” He gestured.

The room was a small version of language teacher “Mama” Wazir’s: carpeted (but covering a packed earth floor rather than wood), very low couch covered in red cloth, flat cushions for seats, several low tables, and walls hung with small tapestries.

Anna set her bucket just inside the doorway and walked to lower herself to a cushion near the couch. The man took the larger bucket from his children and they followed him to a high stool. He stepped up on it and emptied the bucket into a metal bin above the kitchen level. The children handed their smaller buckets up to him to add their contents.

Down from the stool, he washed his hands in the small nearby metal sink with soap and small rations of water.

Meanwhile the woman, after a quick smile at Anna, abandoned her to quickly finish a few preparations for a meal. Then she arranged various dishes on the low table in front of the couch. Her husband came to finish this process, as did the children.

Finally everyone sat down, the man and woman on the red couch, the children on cushions on each end of the table and so to the left and right of their parents, and Anna on the opposite side of the table facing the parents.

As they ate Anna asked the two parents about themselves. She worked in their small garden and helped neighbors do the same, trading various vegetables and spices. She also made up small packets of dried vegetables and spices for sale in the small general stores in the nearest two villages. He did simple fixes to automobiles, though he was having trouble with his own compact pickup truck. It involved the catalytic converter carburetors pioneered by India in automobiles.

Noticing a small bookshelf containing mostly paperback books Anna commented on them. At that the mother shyly admitted to knowing how to read, a skill looked down upon in women. She and her husband had also taught her children to read. She also taught other children in the neighborhood, those whose parents wanted them.

Arksalakan said, a bit defiantly, “Knowledge and hard work is the key to a better life.”

Old-woman Anna agreed and offered up a few lines from the Quran to support the idea. She had memorized the text while studying Dari and Pashto. This impressed the two adults and from then on they addressed her with the honorific Safi.

The typical Afghan feast, as opposed to the regular meal, was of several courses. The two adults as a courtesy had set up a modest feast for their guest, though it surely strained their limited resources. When everyone’s plates had been emptied, the mother declared that’s they’d have dessert as a final course.

Anna held up a hand to deter her from standing.

“You remember that I agreed to eat with you only if I could contribute. And so I have. I have doubled everything in your pantry. And filled up your water tank. I have also cleaned the water and strengthened the tank and its supports.”

All were looking at her in amazement, the adult’s gazes containing hints of fear and embarrassment. They surely thought she was either insane or, a worse possibility, telling the truth. For who could do what she said unless she were one of the jinn–creatures not known to be universally benign?

The little boy was wondering but the girl was skeptical.

“You don’t look like a jineri.”

Anna smiled. “What does a jinn look like? Do they perhaps wear green robes because they love green plants? And headscarves of blue because they love the sky?”

She had Suit slowly change her force field near-burqa from black to a satiny green. And her head-and-neck scarf to a sky blue.

This brought a gasp from the girl and a delighted laugh from the boy. The two adults sat back in fear.

“Do not be afraid,” Anna said. “I was impressed and delighted that you had taught your children respect and compassion for the elderly. I decided that all of you should be rewarded.”

She gazed at the adults while letting Suit change her face and hair slowly to youthful appearance, though an Arabic one not her own. Her eyes had long lashes and were slightly slanted and a pure violet color.

“I have also doubled every item in your wardrobes. And your truck is now as good as new, but it looks no different. For you must not tell anyone of your good luck.”

She turned her now ethereally beautiful face to look at the faces of the children.

“You know why that is, don’t you? People would think you silly, or be jealous of you and want to hurt you?”

The children both nodded their heads vigorously. For who could doubt the wisdom of jinni? Especially when one was sitting in front of you? And looking you in the face?

“So, now, if you will, dear Azizi Jan, bring the dessert. And we will finish the meal, and then I must go.”

The woman rose and hurried to the pantry. The boy said, “Where are you going?”

“Very far away as you know distance. To one of my homes which sits by a vast ocean.”

The girl said, “Will we see you again?”

“No. I have important business and will not come this way again.”

The mother returned to the table carrying five saucers on a tray. She had selected small fudge squares spiced with cinnamon and containing pistachio and almond nuts. The children each got two squares, the woman four, and the man five. Anna was given five also.

As they slowly savored the dessert the father said, “What do you think of the new direction of events here? In our country?”

“I have not studied them. This is only a stop on my way between two far lands. So I can only offer generalities, not specifics.”

She looked at the children as well as the adults and gathered her thoughts. She had been asked to offer genuine wisdom and was not confident in her ability to do so. She tried to temper her remarks with caution, for coming from a supernatural creature her words would have great weight.

“Like all change, it has good and bad aspects. You can expect more riches. And education is good. But people will struggle to get more for themselves than for others, and sometimes this can lead to violence, not merely the jostling and deal-making of the marketplace. I suggest each of you study and think about this, and be cautious. Take the good and avoid the bad.”

The woman spoke, a bit timidly. But Anna could tell that the hesitance was not because of her husband. As she spoke he looked on, interested in what she said.

“What do you think of those who say an education is wasted on a woman?”

Anna laughed. “I think an education is wasted on them!”

Arksalakan smiled. Then sobered.

“I thought jinni were myth. Did there use to be more of you in days gone past?”

“Yes. But we were saddened by how humans acted, so full of violence and ignorance and glorying in their ignorance. They ignored our teachings about the natural world, clouds and rivers and the moon and stars and other matters. So we left for a faraway world.”

“But you’re here now,” said the girl.

“But only in passing. Your world for us is like a step on a stairway.”

Arksalakan glanced at his children, but said, “We have heard that one of you guards the foreigners near the Pass.”

“I have too. I knew her long ago. She is much concerned with justice. She must have stopped here long enough to become angry with the ones who oppose new ways, who oppose peace and plenty and favor keeping a few in power over the many.”

She could not keep up her make-believe much longer. Best she leave quickly.

She stood and they did too.

“I must go now. Go with God.”

They all bowed, the children as well as the adults. They walked with her to the door and stood watching as she passed outside.

Twilight had shrouded the land in near-dark and left only a brightness in the western sky. She turned to them, lifted a hand, and vanished in a swirl of wind.

Anna made a quick aerial tour of the area near the base. Seeing no threats she came down from the sky, entered her tent still invisible. No one was in the common room, as gravity radar had shown. She dropped her invisibility and went into her room and dressed for sleep.

Lying on her bed she closed her eyes and tapped into the communication network of the vans. Much of the forensic work had been done and she pored through it. It told her little she did not already know. Except the IDs of several of the dead men. She traced out their association diagram. Most of them had been involved in criminal actions before, or suspected of it. Tomorrow she would learn more from her co-workers in the company’s S2 section.

She dozed off quickly, memories of her recent visit and meal coming to her now and again. They helped balance her memories of what she’d done the night before.

She had no nightmares that night.

The next day was a Saturday. Only necessary work was done those days and Anna had the day off. She had chow with her growing crowd of acquaintances. Since often THEY had friends, they had gravitated to one of the four very big round tables in one of the corners of the L-shaped dining area.

Janice Wilson said, as they were nearly done eating, “What are your plans for today?”

“I haven’t really decided. Do you have something in mind?”

“Let’s go into Baha Tor.”

“Sure. Now?”

“The mornings are best. The days are already getting hot.”

Janice pulled out her info slate and opened up a page.

“Oh, shoot. There’s only one more opening.”

Anna looked a question and her friend answered.

The number of Post 373 personnel allowed in the village at any one time was limited to keep the villagers from feeling overwhelmed by the military. Each half-day only those who signed up first could go, at least officially, and you could get punishment details if you were caught.

Abraham Schultz leaned over. “Check it again. I think the list is only for Army.”

Janice tapped her slate’s face and brightened. “You’re right. Thanks, Abe. Coming with us?”

“No, thanks, Jan. I’m in the tournament.”

Janice almost visibly controlled her tendency to roll her eyes. She thought online games were childish.

The Army people were encouraged but not required to go in “modest native dress” and to speak Pashto as much as possible so as to minimize culture clash. So the two women retired to their tents to dress. They went first to Janice’s, who had a dozen different pieces of clothing to mix and match.

Ostensibly this was because Anna wanted the woman to show her examples of proper Afghan female dress, but actually to give Pegasus time to zip into her room and add a few items to her closet. Most of her dress items were created by Suit or Pegasus out of air or force fields and banished when not needed.

An everyday nice outfit for public wear usually included loose pants, a dress over that to just below the knees, a long-sleeved blouse tucked into the pants, a very long vest-like over-garment opened or buttoned, and a scarf which covered most of the hair and was long enough to wrap around the throat and possibly one’s face below the eyes.

Janice explained that the colors could be very varied and bright, enough to clash to Western eyes. She chose a middle course, subdued but varied colors. This was forest green pants, blue skirt almost navy dark, a beige vest, gold blouse, a dark gold scarf, and black slip-on flat-heeled shoes. To that she added designer shades, her one concession to Western fashion.

“Very nice,” said Anna when Janice pirouetted before her. “I think I’ll go for something dull the first time I visit.”

Janice also selected a large black bag. Into it she stowed a pistol with a couple of magazines. Town visitors were supposed to carry weapons but do so discreetly.

As Janice was showing off her clothing items Anna had been giving Pegasus instructions. So when she and the other woman arrived in her tent she had two items of each pieces of clothing in her closet. She chose all shades of white and gold for the village visit.

“Not bad,” said Janice. “Actually quite lovely. Not up to the Afghan standard. They like a lot of colors. I think it’s because they’ve been influenced so much by India.

“Nice holster-belt combo,” she added.

Anna had had Pegasus add a wide dull-gold belt to her ensemble with a matching pistol holster on one hip and two-clip cartridge pouch on the other. The pure white over-vest hung open only a few inches and was loose enough that you would have to look carefully to see that Anna was armed.

The only other color in her costume was the glossy brown of faux-wood in the sword she slung over one shoulder. Her sword straps and sheathe were both of white matching her long vest.

By this time the base bus to the village had already left, but Anna had wanted to drive her truck so was not inconvenienced. She shortly caught up to the slow-moving bus and tagged along behind it. At the village she followed it to a parking area near the center of the village. This was a long gravel lot on one side of the two-lane highway. Two or three dozen Indian mini-SUVs and mini-pickup trucks were in the lot.

Behind the lot was a winding stream bed for an offshoot of the KabulRiver which provided much of the water for the area. It was only a dozen feet wide and shallow but enough to nurture a long line of oaks and some kind of wispy conifer trees.

On the other side of the highway were most the buildings which made up the village, most two stories tall, a few three stories. They were of beige brick and (rarely) of wood. They were strung out along the highway for about a mile. Behind them stood a few more houses, some with dusty gardens behind them. A few sheds stood on the opposite side of the highway on each side of the parking lot.

Anna and Janice got out of Anna’s truck and she beeped it locked. They joined the other near-dozen military and crossed the highway, having to wait for a passing long cargo truck and a gaily-painted passenger bus piled high with furniture atop it, several passengers standing amid the furniture and holding onto it.

The long two-story building was a sort of indoor bazaar with a long line of high windows fronting the highway. At each window was a table with chairs. Many tables had people eating, mostly men but with a few women. Opposite the windows was an equally long line of small food-service shops, mostly Afghan but a couple of Western fast-food places.

Breaking the line of the food places were two wide passageways running far toward the back. On each side of the passageways were small shops with open doorways.

Anna and Janice spent the morning there, sightseeing and shopping. They bought trinkets and a few joke or fun items for their friends back at the base and at home. They also bought a few female items of clothing. One or two were for fun, but most were to keep up their status as reputable women in the eyes of the Afghan community.

The U. S. Army in general and their base commander in particular were looking ahead to remaining in Afghanistan for many years to come. Being respected by the general public was an important part of that aim. It would not be easy, but the U. S. military had two prongs in their attempt. One was to bend to local public opinion in some ways. However, it would also seek to bend that local opinion. Especially toward more modern and gentler ways.

They locked their purchases in Anna’s truck. Janice wondered aloud if they would be safe there. The truck appeared as if a bit of work with a crowbar would open it up.

Anna smiled at her new friend.

“It just looks that way. I had it reinforced. It’s bullet-proof. Including the glass and the tires and the underside. Rifle fire at point blank range can’t do more than scar it. They’d have to bring up heavier weaponry to open it up.”

Janice raised an eyebrow. “That must have really cost. And taken time.”

“I’ve got a REALLY generous trust fund.”

They walked back across the street, avoiding the daily traffic to and from the Pass. This included cars and small trucks and busses and large haulers of several kinds. Some of them looked new. Most looked ancient. The older vehicles often were gaily or garishly painted.

“Let’s take a look at the hospital,” Janice suggested. “They’re working hard to fix it up in time for winter. I want to see how far they’ve gotten since I came here last.”

She was silent for a minute, glancing at Anna a few times as they went down the sidewalk. Anna waited; she clearly had something she wanted to talk about.

“If you’re so rich, why don’t you just enjoy it?”

“Be a typical trust fund kid?”

Anna had been asked this before. Thinking about how to answer it had led her to think more deeply about why she didn’t lead a leisurely life.

“Two reasons. One is ethical. I’ve been gifted in so many ways–not just with money–that it almost seems as if I should share my good luck.

“Another is selfish. I’d get bored with just loafing all the time. Don’t get me wrong. I can loaf with the best of them. But I need something to occupy my mind. Something worth doing, not just playing bridge or chess or being a tennis pro.”

“But why the military? And why not become an officer?”

“Maybe I will some day. As for why the military: I’m really good at fighting, really really good. I’m almost afraid at what I’d become if I didn’t have a good cause to channel me.”

Janice laughed. “That’s ridiculous! I’ve known you only a few hours but I already know you better than to think you’d ever become a psychopath. More likely you’d become an athlete. Maybe go for the Olympics.”

Anna grinned. “Yeah. The go-psycho idea is kind of pushing it. Though I half-believed it once.”

She sobered. “But athletics is out.” She glanced at Janice, measuring how much she could trust her. Not just emotionally, but her judgment.

“I’d ruin sports for people. By the time I was fifteen I could bench-press the world record–for men. Run twice times as fast as the world record. I’d be hated by so many people.”

“I researched you after you were assigned to S2. You did very well in all sorts of sports in high school. But not super-well. You were holding back?”

“Yes. It was frustrating sometimes. But playing with friends, and for my school–THAT was good.”

Janice nodded her head. “And the military is like that for you, isn’t it? I feel it too, sometimes, though at other times I’m impatient to get out and get on with my real life.”

“And what would that be?”

The woman pointed at the building before them. It was three stories and was obviously either being built or re-built.

“I’ve always been fascinated with buildings. It started with my doll-houses. Then I got interested in a big old building in the neighborhood. It was in bad shape, but instead of tearing it down completely they renovated it; it was a historical house.

“I used to sneak inside at night and see how they were doing it. I almost got hurt falling through a floor once, but that didn’t stop me. I just learned more so I would know how to stay out of the danger spots.”

She glanced at Anna, her gamin face mischievous. Anna had a flashback at how she would have looked as a kid.

“I did tell tales at school about meeting ghosts inside the house. I even dared some kids to come meet the ghosts. But that backfired.”

She laughed.

“The police caught us and we ended up in jail for a few hours!”

Anna laughed.

They spent nearly an hour walking around and through the building, but only parts of the building. Parts were dangerous but, even more, they had to avoid workmen to keep from getting yelled at.

Next they visited the modest mosque. They couldn’t enter it, being non-Moslems and foreigners. But Janice pointed out interesting architectural details. One was how the outside front had been intricately decorated by insetting local blue stones into the façade. Another was how the inside prayer space was covered by a dome representing the heavens (its outside surface visible from the street).

“See those spires?”

Anna noticed that at each edge of the building there was a tall foot-wide spire with a conical top. She nodded.

“They’re symbolic on something this small. But in large mosques they are minarets. Someone climbs to the top of one or more and calls the faithful to prayer.”

By then it was time for lunch, after which the morning group would have to give way for a second “shift” of soldiers released from the base. The two periods overlapped, so a couple of dozen soldiers at one time chowed down at the local food markets. There was a good deal of chatting amongst them. Anna was included, already known to everyone by reputation if nothing else.

Done, Anna said to Janice, “I’m going to visit Landi Kotal in Pakistan. You want me to drop you off back at the base? Or do you want to stick around here and return with the second shift?”

“No. I’ve been wanting to see it again.”

“It’s pretty damned dangerous. For everyone, but women especially. I can’t take someone–“

“–someone who can’t take care of myself?” She sounded angry.

Anna gauged the woman. She was fit and seemed trained. If she were a Marine, trained and toughened to violence, Anna would have no hesitation taking her. But Anna didn’t know how good the Army trained its people.

On the other hand, Anna should be able to protect Janice if they were attacked. And the woman deserved a chance to prove herself.

“Are you prepared to fight if we’re attacked?”

“Yes.”

“OK. But you’re going to need something a little heavier than a pistol and two magazines. Let’s get outside of town and I’ll fix you up.”

They got into Anna’s truck and drove a couple of miles closer to the Khyber Pass entrance. There she parked in the shadow of a long line of trees planted alongside the highway a long time ago, perhaps as windbreaks.

They got out and Anna joined her friend on the passenger side. Tilting the passenger seat forward she moved the shopping bags to the front seats and opened the top of a metal box. It took up the width of the truck and displayed three foam-packed shelves. Nestled in cutouts in the foam were weapons.

“Holy shit,” Janice said. “No wonder you wanted your truck armored. That’s an entire arsenal.”

“Which is protected by more than the armor. If someone didn’t open this box just right they’d get a nasty surprise.”

There were pistols and submachine guns and carbines and two kinds of sniper rifle.

Anna laid a hand on one of the latter.

“Special built. I’ll normally leave the Marine’s version in the armory and take one of these. This is anti-matériel. It will shoot through an engine block. Or a wall and people on the other side. That‑‑” She pointed. “–has range and an electronic sight that lets me take out targets several miles away. That means people atop mountains or skyscrapers. If I’m lucky I can even take out aircraft.”

Janice looked at the array in awe.

“How much did this cost you?”

Anna shrugged. “A good chunk of a million. I told you my trust fund was generous.”

Actually the weapons box and most of the weapons were virtual creations with the weight, balance, and functionality of physical ones. They had cost her nothing.

One weapon was physical, however. She’d had Pegasus create it during the two-mile drive. She took it out and handed it to Janice. Then she reached in again and took out a harness and a magazine of cartridges and two flat tan ammunition pouches stocked with four more magazines.

Janice was examining the compact black submachine gun, her body turned away from Anna so that the weapon never pointed at her friend. Anna also observed that she nestled the butt into her right hand but kept her trigger finger well outside the trigger guard.

“I think that is just what you need,” Anna said, nodding at the weapon. “It fires a heavy .22 caliber bullet at subsonic speeds. I’d think your armory has loads for it.”

She had Janice put the weapon onto the passenger seat and take off her vest. She helped arrange the straps and the pouches so that the weapon hung below Janice’s left armpit and the pouches at her sides. Then she slid the weapon into the clamshell holster and locked it in place, muzzle pointing down and slightly to the back.

She handed the vest to Janice and the woman put it back on. She twitched the vest nearly closed the way it normally would be worn. Her weapon thus became visible only if she let the vest swing open.

The woman, being right handed, would swing the left side of her vest aside and grab the butt across her chest with her right hand. Then she’d use the heel of her hand to push down on the butt to free it from the holster so she could grasp the weapon and draw it. The clamshell was secure enough that Janice could run while wearing it, though she’d have to hold the weapon with her left hand to keep it from swinging awkwardly.

Janice shrugged her shoulders and adjusted the straps slightly. Satisfied, she turned half away from Anna and drew the weapon as she’d been instructed. Anna watched her weapon handling closely, ready to correct her friend if necessary.

She did not need it. She carefully removed the magazine and worked the action to ensure no cartridge remained inside the weapon. She then practiced replacing the magazine and chambering a round. All while still facing half away from Anna. She repeated the unloading and loading process several times, till it became easy for her. A lot of practice would be needed to make this automatic, but this was enough for her to be minimally proficient.

Meanwhile Anna had sent Pegasus up a half mile and had been using Pegasus’s gravity radar to surveil the area around them out to the distance to the Pass: eight kilometers or about five miles.

“Now let’s get you a little firing practice. I know a good spot to do that.”

They got back into the truck and drove a couple of miles eastward. Then they drove down a dusty, bumpy track another couple of miles, climbing upward inside a valley carved into a hillside.

A hundred yards further the valley ended, the hillside thus making a backdrop for their impromptu firing range.

They got out and emptied four of the brown shopping bags into other bags. They carried the empties to the end of the valley where it began its tilt upward and merged into the rest of the hillside. In the bottom of each sack they scooped sand a couple of inches deep to keep them upright against the slight breeze, making four targets several feet apart.

Back at the truck Anna gave Janice a brief tour of her weapon. In particular, it had a thumb safety and a selector for single, triple, and nine shots automatic. The safety and selector had levers on both sides of the weapon, so it could be fired either right- or left-handed.

“Why don’t you fire a few shots aimed single shot?”

Janice slid the skeletal shoulder stock out and locked it in place. Then she aimed carefully two handed, her support hand under the round flashlight attached near the front of the barrel. She squeezed off a shot. Her gun made a sound as of someone spitting and one of the shopping-bag targets quivered.

“Wow!” said Janice. “I wondered why you didn’t caution me to put something in my ears. Even as close as I am I barely heard a sound.”

Anna said, “Let me show you another feature.”

This was a switch on the side of the flashlight. When thrown one way it was a flashlight, the other way converted it to a laser targeter which shone a red dot on the target.

From single fire Janice worked up to nine shot fully automatic. After she emptied the twenty-round magazine she called a halt.

“I’ve had enough. You want to shoot?”

Anna grinned. “Prepare to be amazed. Look at me, not the targets.”

Janice did so. Then Anna’s pistol was in her hand and had fired, a short quiet buzz.

Janice blinked. She had only seen a blur of movement that put a pistol into her friend’s hand. And Anna had fired with her pistol at waist height, standing relaxed and not crouching. A notoriously inaccurate “gunfighter” technique, derided by all pistol experts.

Yet when Janice looked down range, she saw the one remaining tattered target totally gone.

“You must have hit it with at least one bullet. What kind of bullets are those?”

“They’re the size of needles. Specially designed not to tumble and spread much. Each magazine holds a hundred.”

Janice frowned. “You must be pretty good at adjusting for wind. There’s not much, but I definitely had to adjust for it for my heavier bullets.”

Actually Anna had cheated. She’d merged with Tiara and had its super-advanced computer figure windage and other factors and guide her to adjust her aim. Though perhaps cheat was the wrong word; she and Tiara were now so tightly bound that it was questionable that they could be separated even analytically. She had become a cyborg.

The land was mostly flat for several miles southeast. Then the Safed Koh mountains ahead of them came closer till the foothills reared up directly ahead. Closer they came to the mouth of the Pass. Off to one side was a large sign with white on green writing. In English it declared that this was the entrance to the Khyber Pass, followed by smaller text giving historical information.

The hills reared up on both sides of them. The highway began to twist. Later it split into two, one side higher than the other.

Shortly they approached the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The way opened up a bit and small dirt huts appeared on each side of them, the beginning of the strip village Tor Kham. They passed a gasoline station with a large red and blue Dr. Upper soft-drink sign on its side.

A grey stone barrier gateway loomed up, high enough to pass tall trucks or busses but narrow enough only for two lanes of traffic. The bridging top spelled out TOR KHAM PAKISTAN in English and Arabic script.

Just beyond was a toll booth manned by a tall skinny Khyber Rifle soldier of the Khyber Agency clad in a brown uniform. He only glanced at the two women as they drove through, Anna dropping the required coins into the hopper.

“Interesting,” she said, “that Afghanistan doesn’t have a toll booth here.”

“I’d guess they will eventually. But they’re not as sophisticated as Pakistan. That’s partly behind the new Afghan administration’s invitation to foreigners to invest in commerce. Jealousy.”

They passed through the village, viewing the one- and two-story buildings on both sides with little interest. The dirt bricks used were of a beige color and the only color came from signs advertising drinks and food. The last substantial building was near the end of the village, another gasoline station.

From there the hillsides closed in again and the highway twisted and turned some more. They passed through five tunnels. Finally the way opened and Landi Kotal valley spread out before and below them.

It was about two miles wide, roughly oval, with a fair amount of greenery from the recent Spring rains. The long flattened “base” of the oval was to their right. To their left was the elongated north-pointing “top” of the oval. Anna knew from the map Tiara laid over her vision that another smaller village nestled there.

A half mile further and to their right was a military base, the Michni Post of the Khyber Agency, with a good view of the valley below. She turned into the entrance and parked in a concrete lot along with a couple dozen other cars and trucks. There were also two tour buses taking up four parking spots.

They got out and walked toward a one-story red-brick reception building. It was guarded by a soldier standing at parade rest under the porch to the building so that he could see whoever came through the gate. Several video cameras were placed about the area, however, so Anna was not sure if he was useful or merely a visible symbol of authority.

The two women nodded at him as they passed into the reception area. It was filled with perhaps two dozen people, tourists for the most part. Most seemed to belong to one of the tour buses, judging by the way they clustered together and chatted.

They approached a reception desk behind which a young Pakistani woman sat, dressed in dark-blue Western clothes except for a lighter-blue headscarf.

“Hello,” Anna said in Pashto. “We are here for the tour.”

The woman looked at her without expression and spoke in British-accented English.

“Please go in the next room and place weapons and any other metal objects on the conveyer belt. Weapons will be collected and you can pick them up on the way out of the base.”

Anna and Janice passed into the next room which was set up similar to aircraft security procedures. Their weapons were placed in a locker and a claim check given to them so that they could redeem them later. Their keys, coins, and other metal objects were returned to them.

They joined the tour group when it formed up a little while later. Following directions of one of the soldiers who were on duty as security checkers they climbed long outside stairs up to a plateau which held the main administrative building to the base. It was built of grey brick and roofed with red-brick slates. The path and the building were surrounded by a green lawn which seemed kept that way by sprinklers.

The reception area inside resembled a small hotel lobby or business office reception. A couple dozen people were already there. Anna guessed they belonged to one of the tour buses; they were mostly well-dressed Europeans and a few natives of India. The two touring groups merged.

Another young woman dressed similarly to the receptionist down-hill greeted them with a smile. She spoke to them in English.

“Now that we’re all here we can get started. Please follow me.”

They filed into a hall behind the woman and shortly were ushered into a large long room. One side of the room had floor to ceiling windows showing the sprawl of Landi Kotal in the valley below. The other side contained a four-tier set of padded seats. The tourists were directed to find seats, which they did.

A large video screen came alight on each side of the wide picture window. Each showed a map of the Khyber Pass, the mountains surrounding it, and the flatter areas to the east and west of the mountains. A rough oval surrounded the pass, extending a dozen miles on all sides.

The young woman said, “This is called informally the Five Tribes Area for the major tribes in this area. The valley of Landi Kotal is near the center of the area.”

The scene zoomed in to show the valley in greater detail.

“More than 30,000 people live here. We are happy to announce the opening recently of a water pipeline from the higher mountains in the north which should alleviate a chronic shortage of water.”

The map showed a red arrow pointing to a blue-coded feature which snaked southward into the valley.

“The low rainfall in this area does have a positive benefit. It lets solar power work effectively all year round. This abundance of power and now water makes this area a magnet for industry. An additional attraction is our highly respected technical school, which you can see on the map and outside the window.”

The woman paused to let the audience, nearly fifty people, examine the map and try to find the school in the area below them. Janice pointed it out to Anna, who nodded as she found it via Tiara and her own eyes.

“Let me direct you also to the location of our CivilHospital. It is just off the main Peshawar-Jalalabad highway through the pass. It has recently been expanded and upgraded to a top-tier institution.”

She paused again to let her audience peer at the sights.

“As you travel through this area may I suggest you visit the shrine to the great Pakistani poet Amir Hamza Shinwari, who was born here and lived here much of his life.

“And your visit would not be complete if you did not also visit the great Landi Kotal Bazaar, which your tour guides will help you navigate.

“Now let us proceed to the museum area. After that you are in for a great treat. The Khyber Rifle soldiers will perform traditional dances and a military drill.”

The two women waited for everyone else to stand and file out. Janice spoke up.

“Did you get how much PR our guide laid on us? Our estimate is that Pakistan has been galvanized by how much effort their backward Afghan neighbors are making to catch up to them.”

Anna nodded. She had gotten pretty much the same estimate through Tiara as she’d listened.

The “museum area” was not large or well stocked. It was a long hall twice as wide as normal halls. On one side behind glass were artifacts from homes and several dummies dressed in traditional clothing and uniforms. On the wall were old photographs. There were also portraits of military men and a fine display of weapons leaning heavily toward antique swords, knives, and firearms.

The doorway to the outside let them into a large rectangular park area. It was actually inside a three-story tall building which was the Khyber Agency fort. It surrounded the park on all sides and was the size and length of a football playing field.

“The fort,” said Janice, “has fallen three times to enemy attacks, the first when it was British built and manned. Every time it was built up greater and tougher than before.”

They stopped to chuckle at a tall leafy banyan tree. It was “bound” to the earth by three thick chains. Beside it was a large plaque in three languages. The English read “I AM UNDER ARREST ONE EVENING BRITISH OFFRS AFTER DRINKING HEAVILY THOUGHT I WAS DESERTING MY POST THEY ORDERED MESS SERGEANT TO ARREST ME”

Further along they lined up behind the others at a parade ground and took seats before a large sign which read THE GUARDIANS OF KHYBER PASS. Underneath it read NOV 1878.

On the parade ground facing them was a military band in brown uniforms. The first row had drums suspended from harnesses, the second row carried fifes. They waited until the tour group was seated and still. Then at a command they began to play and march, executing marches and counter marches, the two rows passing before and behind and passing between them.

It was quite a stirring display and executed very precisely. There was enthusiastic applause afterward.

In the midst of the acclaim a lieutenant sat down beside Janice. She turned to him and smiled and greeted him, and introduced him to Anna, beside her opposite the soldier.

“Anna, this is Lieutenant Nathan Atal Momand. He is the third in command of the Khyber Rifle post. Lieutenant, this is Lance Corporal Anna King, our latest addition to Post 373.”

“An honor and a pleasure, Corporal. We must talk later. But I’ll leave you to finish watching the show.”

He shook her hand and stood to walk away.

The next show was of some three dozen men in traditional blue and white clothing with white caps on their heads. They performed a sort of whirling dervish dance which caused the skirts of the clothing to fan out into great bell shapes above their white pants. A sort of wild music leaning heavily to flutes accompanied them. They were also greeted with great applause.

The final show was of men in brown daily clothing with green trim on the bottoms of the skirts. They marched and counter-marched more raggedly but with great enthusiasm. They carried curved swords which they brandished. At the end the men paired off and executed “duels” with occasional clashing of swords and much circling around each other.

After that the audience stood and applauded and cheered the three groups, each of which came forward to receive the appreciation and to bow before running off. There were three encores before Lieutenant Momand came forward with a sergeant who formed up the men and march them off the field.

Janice hung back and let the tour group exit the area as the Lieutenant walked to join them.

“Dear Corporal,” he said to her with a smile. “I am so pleased you awaited me.”

“My pleasure, Lieutenant. May we please address each other informally. We are off duty and I’m showing Anna this remarkable city you Pakistanis have created.”

“Indeed, Janice. Lance Corporal, will you likewise grant me informal speech?”

“Happily,” she said, trying to imitate the slightly flowery style the other two had adopted. “I’m afraid I don’t speak Urdu and can only get by in Pashto and Dari.

“Please call me Anna.”

“It’s remarkable that you speak three languages. So few of your countrymen have more than one.”

Janice may have bristled at that implied put down of Americans but she didn’t show it. She said, “Oh, but Anna is fluent in French and Spanish as well.”

“Only school-girl dialects, I’m afraid,” said Anna.

This was not quite true. With the aid of Tiara she could read every written language on the planet and understand most spoken ones. Speaking them herself, however, was possible only if they were similar in pronunciation and grammar to the languages which she already knew. Some languages were impossible for her, such as the African click languages which might have as many as 48 tongue-click consonants.

“Come walk with me,” he said. “We can sit in the mess room and have refreshments while we get better acquainted.”

They entered the fort by a door other than the one the tour group had entered and exited the parade ground. The halls were wide enough that the three could walk abreast and make small talk. The Lieutenant made an effort to include Anna in the conversation, positioning her between him and Janice.

In the mess, the small officer’s mess, Anna noted, they were served by a soldier in casual-dress uniform covered by a white apron. They all had tea but the two women refused snacks, saying they planned to eat in the Bazaar and didn’t want to ruin their appetites.

“The Bazaar,” said the Lieutenant, “is a fascinating place even for those of us who have been here a while. As long as the two of you stay together, remain alert, and leave by nightfall, you should be safe.

“But then, any party with the Lance Corporal in it should be safe,” he said Janice, then transferred his gaze to Anna. “Your reputation precedes you.”

“Except that no one would recognize me out of uniform,” she replied. “And even in uniform my face would be unfamiliar.”

“Ah, but you would be wearing your sword. Wouldn’t you? Or did you leave it at your base?”

“No, it’s with me. Or more correctly in the weapons locker at the reception center.”

“Oh, we can’t have that for such honored guests. Would you mind if I dispatched a pair of my men to get your weapons? Yours as well, Janice.”

She looked uncertain but Anna was not. No one would steal them; the Lieutenant would be sending two trusted men, for he had more reasons than diplomacy for his suggestion. She was not sure exactly what, but through Tiara (or her own increasingly-able reading of the many tiny cues people gave out) she was sure his reasons were strong ones.

“It’s OK with me. You?” she said to her friend.

Janice shrugged, willing to rely on Anna’s judgment.

The Lieutenant spoke in Pashto on his cell phone, then clipped it back to his belt and spoke to Anna.

“You may not be recognizable with any ordinary weapon. But a woman carrying a sword– Everyone has heard the tales of the jineri who killed nine men with a sword. There are those who argue she is merely human rather than supernatural. But in either case she is an personage to be wary of.”

The man then enquired as to their families’ health, asked how Anna was adjusting to her new quarters and routines, and made other small talk.

After more than fifteen minutes of this he frowned.

“My men should be here by now. Please wait a moment.”

He made another cell phone call, then closed his phone and said, “There was a delay at the reception center. The tour people are leaving and the personnel there mistakenly gave them priority. Your weapons are now on the way.”

This was a lie. Pegasus had accompanied the men to the reception area and back. His real presence was the size of a brick and invisible, so he’d been able to stay close. The men had quickly gotten the weapons and then photographed them back in the fort. They had also X-rayed the sword, getting back no image of its interior structure. It was impervious to any kind of forces except for esoteric ones not known to Earthly science.

A few more minutes later two soldiers bore into their Lieutenant’s presence the women’s weapons. They laid them down on the mess table in front of the two women. One of them began to apologize to their boss but he cut them short with a gesture and told them to return to their other duties.

He watched as the women stood, divested their vests, and donned and adjusted the straps and holsters holding their weapons. He was especially interested in Anna’s futuristic needle submachine pistol with is long thin barrel and extra-sweptback stock.

“I’ve never seen one of those.”

Anna said, “It’s an experimental model. Shoots spin-stabilized needles in clusters of three, nine, and nineteen. Not very accurate beyond ten meters but I can cut a person in two close up.”

The women sat down and took up their tea cups.

“And that is the famous Samurai sword, no doubt.”

“Not really.”

Anna weighed the benefits of remaining mysterious and giving a rational explanation and decided on the second option.

“Its blade is straight and much thinner, being made of a super-hard composite plastic.”

“May I see it?”

“Only from a distance I’m afraid. It’s so sharp you can literally cut off an arm and not know it until the pain starts.”

“Of course.”

She stood. In a motion so fast it was a blur the weapon was in her hand. A blink at the wrong instant and the sword would have seemed to magically appear.

Anna turned the blade this way and that so the officer could get a better view.

“Impressive. The blade looks like metal. But it is not, you say. Are we going to see more products made of this remarkable material?”

“I’m sure we will but it might be many years from now. It’s very expensive to make. I could only afford it by signing a contract to give a detailed report on its pros and cons.”

She holstered the sword, more slowly but still remarkable for its ease, and sat back down.

“Well, it has been pleasant,” he said. “But I have duties to get back to. And I’m sure you’re eager to see the city. Do take the advice our little tour guide gave you. Landi Kotal may be old and shabby in places, but it has worthy sights to see.”

They all stood. The Lieutenant stood and escorted them out of the fort into the reception area. He waved to them and left. They did the same, accompanied by a smile from “our little tour guide” who was seated at the reception desk.

Back in Anna’s truck, her sword removed but all their other weapons in place, Janice spoke as her friend started the truck.

“Did you really buy that story our dear friend gave us about the delay getting our weapons to us?”

“No. I’d bet they took photos of them. Maybe tried to X-ray my sword.”

“‘Tried’?”

“The case and the sword is too dense to show any detail.”

“Hmm. I have to echo the LT. It’s a remarkable weapon.”

Their informal tour was as interesting to the two women as it had been advertised. Janice was impressed by the architectural elements of the hospital. Anna enjoyed the end of the water pipeline where the icy waters from the north plunged into a reservoir in a great frothing splash. She guessed that the splashy show was incidental, that it helped to aerate the water.

The shrine to poet Amir Hamza Shinwari was also impressive. Outside it looked more like a jail, with thick walls and bars on the windows, the windows on the second floor only. Janice explained.

“Fanatics who disapproved of the poet have twice tried to destroy or at least deface it. Each time the authorities have made it tougher to do.”

Inside they saw a second deterrent to defacement: an armed guard who watched those inside as suspiciously as any bank guard. He stared at the two women but when they approached him asking if they should leave their weapons with him he said he’d “been notified” that they would be coming and turned away to watch others.

Inside there were book shelves of poems and artworks from all over Pakistan and from many eras. There were also photos of various personages and where they had been born and lived. In a separate room there were little dioramas of them and their homes. In still another room was a small theater and a continuously running video on poetical and other art subjects.

“I wouldn’t have thought poets and artists were so important,” Anna said as they left the building.

“Literacy in Pakistan arrived later than in Western nations. So poems which could be memorized and spread by word of mouth were correspondingly more important. Even now with high literacy rates they’re still important. Poor Afghanistan with worse literacy is even more dependent.”

“Which is why so many schools emphasize memorizing the Qu’ran. I was told that in language school but forgot it.”

Which was true. She didn’t add that she’d also memorized the Islamic bible. It was easy with Tiara helping, but Anna had always had a phenomenal memory about subjects she wanted to remember.

Which still didn’t help her understand what she memorized. That was especially true about the Qu’ran and highly advanced text books. In fact, it had hurt her understanding when quite young until she recognized that downside of perfect memory.

They were walking back to Anna’s truck when she spoke to Janice in a low voice, “Do not speak. Do not show emotion.”

Janice slanted her eyes to follow her friend’s gaze. Three men were standing perhaps fifty feet off to one side. They were heavily armed with knives and pistols and rifles. All had long black scraggly beards.

They began to walk toward the women. Anna stopped and waited, facing them. Janice ranged herself alongside her.

The men swaggered to a halt only a few feet away. The middle of the three sneered at them. He said in badly accented English, “Two whores pretending to be men. We should teach you a lesson.”

The three men were smiling in malicious anticipation. Slowly their smiles wilted.

Anna was watching all around her with Tiara’s gravity radar. She saw Janice glance at her, then back at the men, then back at her for several longer moments. Anna kept most of her attention on the men in front of her. Her eyes did not blink, or so it seemed the blinks came so far apart. This was her usual response to threat: total, totally cold, fierce attention poised on a knife edge.

“But,” said the center man, executing a peculiar jerk of his chin upward, “we won’t bother. We would be smeared with your dirt.”

He turned abruptly and marched decisively away. His cronies followed him with dirty looks shot back at the women.

Janice relaxed. Anna did not. She continued to stand, gaze locked on the men while they walked a hundred feet to a truck of their own, got in, and drove away. She kept watching till it rounded a distant corner and disappeared.

She had Pegasus loft half a mile and keep them under observation until they had gone several miles down the road east toward Peshawar.

Janice had been speaking to her for a full minute until Anna turned her attention back to her friend. She re-played her memory back fast forward.

She considered one comment her friend had said: “It actually looked like your eyes were glowing.” They had been but Janice could not have seen it: via Tiara Anna had directed that the illusion be invisible to her friend.

“It must have been an odd reflection from the sun that made it look that way.”

They walked on to her truck and got in it. As Anna started its engine Janice said, “Well, that look I saw on your face wasn’t an illusion. I’ve never seen anyone look so blood-thirsty, without moving a muscle. You positively projected deadly menace. But your face was frozen and you didn’t shift your weight forward ready to jump on them.”

Anna put the truck in gear and headed toward the Bazaar.

“Funny. I suppose you’re right. But I’ve never seen myself when I’ve been threatened by something. I just go totally focused on meeting the threat with the minimum effort.”

“You weren’t going to kill those guys? I had the feeling that any instant you’d go from relaxed to slicing their heads off. I’ve seen how fast you can move.”

“Your friend the LT must been right. People will make the connection between the sword and those loonies I put down a few days ago.

“But they were safe from that. To the Pakistanis we’re Afghan mercenaries on Pakistani soil. Our good friends the Khyber Rifles would hate having us kill good Pakistanis. I’d have just beat up on them a little bit, taken their weapons from them. They’d be so humiliated by that they probably wouldn’t even mention it to anyone.”

“You are one scary bitch,” said Janice.

It was not an insult. Janice might look like a cheerleader dressing up when she went to work wearing a uniform. But she was not; she was a soldier through and through.

Sunset was gilding the Bazaar when they arrived there. Anna parked in one of the parking lots near the Bazaar which was on each side of a long quadruple-wide street barred to vehicles. The Bazaar paralleled the nearby Peshawar-Jalalabad highway which threaded the Pass.

Out of the truck they adjusted their vests to cover their weapons but Anna made no attempt to hide the fact that she carried a sword on her back.

They entered the western end. The sun was at their backs casting their shadows ahead of them. It was a bit like walking in a canyon with two- to four-story buildings on each side of them.

It was like an outside shopping mall. Some of the merchandise was fairly modern. Some looked as if it could have been created a thousand years before. The shops were large and small.

The crowd was heavy even this close to meal time. The people included men and women, the latter always in a group or accompanied by a man. Clothing was mostly traditional, some shabby and some expensive. There were also some Western style clothing in the mix, but the women all wore scarves as did Anna and Janice. The men almost all wore little round caps, usually white.

Almost all the clothing was brightly colored, but some women wore all black. Anna with her pure white and white-gold stood out. But the sword made her even more conspicuous. The two soldiers walked in their own little lane of people anxious not to crowd them.

They bought nothing on the nearly mile-long walk to the Bazaar’s eastern end, but they made notes between themselves of treats and trinkets to buy on the way back and of places where they might like to eat.

The sun had hidden its face when they doubled back but the sky was still bright. Now they began to collect and fill shopping bags. Nor were they the only ones.

They were near their beginning when they detoured into a restaurant. There were tables of various sizes in the middle of the room and a buffet near the far wall. But like a lot of Middle-Eastern eating places it had deep waist-high shelves on the three walls nearest the entrance. Plenty of people were standing there eating. More of those were of families, the smaller children being handed food down to them, but there were singles and triples there too.

They chose to eat standing also, despite being somewhat tired. (At least Janice was; it would take a lot more to tire out Anna’s genetically enhanced body.) They snagged a waitress by pushing a button on an ordering console which might have been found in the most modern Western establishments. Soon the woman delivered the food and waited to be paid, the usual custom in much of the Middle East. They both paid in cash and tipped generously.

Janice liked her food spiced and Anna even more highly spiced. Anna’s friend raised her eyebrows and smiled at some of the condiments Anna chose.

People-watching was one of the pleasures of the meal. And they were watched too. Especially the tall athletic woman in blazing white and white gold with a sword upon her back. She might indeed be one of the mighty female jinni, a jineri.

Anna caught a little boy and girl at a table nearby staring at her round eyed. She smiled at them and winked.

They ducked their heads and then looked back up, absorbed in wonder until their parents scolded them for rudeness.

The two women took their time and savored their food and drink. Tired from a day on the go they ate big meals, though Anna’s portions were almost twice the size of Janice’s. She was a big woman while her friend was petite.

Night had fully fallen when they left the restaurant and headed toward Anna’s truck. The warmth of the day was long gone and chill filled the dry air. They stowed their purchases and drove away.

Traffic was light on the western part of the Khyber Pass highway, though the Pakistan-bound traffic was heavier. There was only a few cars behind them and a heavy truck before them when they entered the higher, narrower, and twistier section. The road would remain that way most of the way toward the Tor Kham border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

That strip city showed only a few lights, though there were a few street lights at the border and a few open establishments on each side. Most of the cars behind them and the truck ahead of them peeled off at the border. Though another truck, this one lighter, pulled in ahead of them as they left the city.

Anna had been having suspicions about a car behind her. She’d had Pegasus swoop down close enough to see inside the vehicle. It held the three Pakistanis she’d confronted earlier and one other man.

She’d kept quiet to see if the men would quit their pursuit, if that what it was. They didn’t, so she began to reverse-plan how they’d ambush Janice and herself. The likeliest included the truck that was now ahead of them.

When the lights of Tor Kham had vanished behind them she spoke to Janice.

“Don’t panic. But I believe we are going to be ambushed soon. Just remember that this vehicle is proof against attacks. Whatever happens, stay inside it with the doors locked.”

Her friend sat up, any sleepiness banished. Her voice was calm.

“What makes you say that? Never mind. What do you plan to do?”

“I’m going to let them stop us. Then I’m going to get out and teach them not to attack Americans.”

“That doesn’t sound smart. Stay inside and we’ll call the base. They can have an emergency response team here in fifteen minutes. Maybe faster.”

“No. The loonies might just surrender without a fight. They’d probably just get a rap on the knuckles for an attempted robbery. And anyway they might not surrender. Some our guys might get hurt.”

“And you might get hurt. This is a stupid plan.”

“Nevertheless. It’s what I’m going to do.”

Janice clamped her mouth shut. Anna had a manner that was implacable. Nothing short of death was going to stop her. A friend’s arguments were not.

She drew her weapon, checked it, and shifted her ammunition packs for easy access.

Nearly five minutes later the ambush happened. This part of the highway between Tor Kham and Baha Tor was barren of any possible witnesses. Now there were only one car behind them and one truck ahead. The truck began to slow. It drifted to the center of the two-lane highway and beyond and back again as if the driver was dozing.

Finally it slewed sideways and stopped so that it blocked the road, facing to the side and a bit back toward them.

Anna smoothly slowed. So did the car behind them. Then when she stopped so did they. And slewed sideways to block the women’s retreat.

The directions of the car’s and the truck’s head lights were in opposite directions. Slightly eddying early-evening fog caught some of the light before and behind the two women. The fog-scattered light and the opposed headlights lit the area around Anna’s truck brightly.

Anna turned off her ignition and headlights. She reached up and behind her to flick the interior light control to Always Off.

Janice peered before and behind them. Men were getting out of the car and truck which had them blocked. A passing big hauler coming from Jalalabad whooshed by them on the separate Peshawar-bound highway.

Anna ignored Janice’s gaze when that woman turned it upon her. Her killing calm was on her. She was fully alert and full of an icy fierceness. Her brain moved at higher speed. Time seemed to slow.

Behind them the men split into two on each side of her truck. They approached to two dozen or so feet away and stopped. They held rifles and machine guns slung and pointing slightly downward but toward Anna’s truck.

Four men came from the other truck and stopped in a line the same distance away, weapons similarly slung.

In good English a man in the line before them called out to them to get out, and to leave their weapons in the truck.

Anna got out, taking her sword with her on her back. She slammed the driver’s side door behind her. It locked.

“What do you want?” she said loudly in English.

The man may have smiled. The light behind him kept her from seeing it if so.

“We’re going to have some fun. Then we’re going to kill you.”

That declaration–caught on the cell phone clipped to her belt–was Anna’s cue.

Her pistol was in her hand too fast to even blur. It just seemed to jump there. She was already moving, fast, fast, toward the side of the road away from her truck. Drawing them away from Janice.

Her pistol buzzed four times. Storms of needles took out all four headlights. The scene plunged into darkness. And she went invisible and upward at the same time.

Tiara’s and Pegasus’s gravity radar lit the scene below her clearly. She paused fifty feet up and surveyed the scene.

The two groups of men rushed in the direction she had gone, firing toward where she had vanished. The explosions and flares of muzzle light shattered the night for a good minute.

Hidden in the noise was the sound of a truck door slamming closed. Janice had not stayed in Anna’s truck.

Panic flashed through Anna. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! To think that Janice would stay safe while a companion was in danger. Soldiers did not do that.

Janice crouched by the bonnet of the truck, leaned on it to steady her aim, and aimed her machine pistol toward the men, illuminated by their own fire. She fired twice, three-shot bursts. The sound was lost in the enemy’s barrage. The bullets were not. Two of the men dropped.

Anna’s cold fierce will returned to her. She swooped down and further from her truck in the direction of Baha Tor and the base. She fired two bursts, at an angle so that her aim was off to the side of her truck. The needles would not find her friend.

They made their quiet buzzing sound, spin-stabilized needles nevertheless spreading and beginning to pin-wheel from a hundred’s feet distance.

Her muzzle flash was dim. Yet bright enough so that it and the sound of her shots pointed out her direction.

The men began another barrage in her direction. But Anna was already fifty feet in the air. Suit made even the heaviest gunfire irrelevant, but the height gave her a better view of the battleground.

Janice was still behind the truck. She’d also made inroads on the enemy during their second barrage. Another man was on the ground.

Three Janice. Two Anna. That left three.

One of them yelled “Spread out! Spread–” Another buzz cut him short.

Both remaining men obeyed, then crouched in the sandy dirt behind a small bush. Their weapons traversed the darkness, their eyes strained to see the enemy.

Time to end this. Anna swooped and took the head off the second man with her sword.

Then she darted to a position a few feet in front of the last man. Her aspect was that of a black shroud floating in the air, two red eyes near the top of it.

The last man screamed and fired at the same time. Bullets flew toward the apparition and vanished into nothing when they encountered its force-field shield. He kept firing, holding the automatic rifle’s trigger down. Until it ran out of bullets.

He crouched, staring, hardly daring to breathe.

The jinn waited long moments. Then from it came an eerie voice.

FOREIGNERS ARE UNDER MY PROTECTION. RUN BACK TO TOR KHAM AND TELL EVERYONE THERE SO.

The man paused, his face screwed up in terror. Then he carefully and quietly placed his weapon on the ground, stood carefully, turned and began to walk east. In moments his steps accelerated and he raced away.

Anna bobbed up fifty feet and tracked his process into the distance for a full minute.

Anna shouted, “It’s over! They’re all gone. Good job! Get back in the truck!”

Janice paused, then did as ordered. She must have remembered how well Anna did in the dark.

A dark that was lightened occasionally by trucks on the other highway whooshing by on their way to Pakistan. So far there were no signs of approaching headlights coming from Pakistan.

Above the man Anna continued to watch him run toward Pakistan. For a time he paralleled the road, then made his way onto it. Then off it as a cargo hauler approached from the direction of Pakistan and passed him. He was staggering now as he tried to run.

The big truck slowed and stopped behind the assailants’ car. The driver stared at the scene illuminated by his headlights.

Anna dropped down beside the cab, whipped her sword clean of blood and other flesh, sheathed it. She rapped on the truck door.

The driver jerked, stared at her. His sudden fear ebbed as he took in her harmless appearance, visible in the back-deflection of the light from the car in front of him. Her big beautiful eyes in a face of unsurpassed beauty looked calmly at him. If a woman was not afraid, why should he be?

“There has been a fight,” she said to him in Pashto. “It is over.” Then she repeated it in Dari and poorly accented Urdu.

He answered in Pashto: “What happened?”

“Some men tried to kill Americans. They failed. The Americans–we–fought back.”

“Oh.” He considered her. Reserved judgment. Looked all around as if to see through the darkness on all sides of him. Relaxed.

He tensed again as an armored olive long-body SUV from the American base rushed up on the opposite road and screeched to a halt, followed by another. Troops spilled out of them, clad in helmets and body armor, long-barreled weapons at the ready, their heads turning in search arcs as they looked through the night-sight glasses mounted on their helmets. They spread out in pairs.

Anna put her hands up to channel her voice toward the troops. She shouted, “It’s all over! Ease down! It’s all over!”

No one eased down immediately. The nearest pair oriented on her voice and the cab of the heavy hauler.

“I’m coming into the light! My hands are up! My hands are up!”

She advanced into the side-scatter of the truck’s headlights, not into the direct light. That would light her up too much and damage their enhanced night vision. She stood there, hands up. One pair approached her.

One of the two men recognized her, spoke into a microphone mounted on his helmet. “It’s the Marine. It looks like she’s been up to her old tricks. I see at least two ragheads down.”

Soon the situation was understood by the two fire teams from the base. Their commander, backed up by radio communication from the base, established a perimeter around the battle site and illuminated it with flood lights.

More vehicles arrived from the base. The long-hauler got out of his cab and leaned against it, smoking and looking upon the scene as if it were a welcome diversion from a boring run.

Janice joined Anna as she spoke to their boss, Lieutenant Wang. Sergeant Matlock prowled about, taking photographs of the scene.

A big forensics van came from the base, driving on the wrong side of the highway to Jalalabad since all traffic was blocked coming toward the base. The experts were not going to miss out on a fresh battle scene.

Lights were set up all about the scene. Traffic from Jalalabad slowed and bunched up as their passengers gawked at the scene. More troops showed up to direct that traffic onward.

More troops on the road to Jalalabad pushed the attackers’ vehicles off the road once they’d been photographed a dozen ways. Anna moved her truck off the side of the road. Then the newest set of troops began to direct the long-hauler onward toward Jalalabad. A while later first one, then a few more vehicles approached from Tor Kham and were also directed on their way to Jalalabad.

Two hours after the events Anna and Janice were allowed to finish their trip and get to bed.

© Copyright 2015