Tip Of The Spear - 3

3.

The teacher arrives at the mouth of the cave, alone.

The engineer is leaning against a rock, fiddling with the radio in his hands. Wires and other equipment snake around him, devices the teacher can’t make sense of. The crumpled tarpualins around him are empty. Tins lay around a blackened firepit, stained a fetid pea-green.

“They left to get a signal,” says the engineer. His voice seems clearer now, outside the confines of the house. Unlike the Pakistani’s, his Hazaragi is near-unaccented, a naturalness that rings of deliberation in its ease. “We are alone for now.”

There is a small bundle of cloth in the teacher’s hands. He sets it down at the scientist’s feet.

“Bread, and other fresher foods. A journey like yours can’t last forever on tin cans.”

The older man eases himself onto a rock. The engineer watches him idly, fingers toying with the wires in his lap.

“It’s come to this, hasn’t it?” says the teacher. “Men like you, now sent to the front.”

The engineer does not react.

“Twenty years ago,” says the teacher, “you were the men in suits in Kabul. Briefcases of money for the new city. Visiting the hospitals, the orphanages, the university. I can’t blame you—we had talent to spare, before the fighting took care of that. And there were Pakistanis among you, then.”

The radio squeals like a broken bird.

“Ten years ago, you were the Uzbeks and Kazakhs, the construction workers. Dams and airstrips, money into concrete. That building project down in Kandahar. Not that any of us ever saw a cent of it—though I can hardly blame you for that.”

The engineer, meanwhile, only looks away. “I’m not quite sure what you’re talking about.”

“I know your kind,” says the teacher. “We had names for you back in the university. Book-burners. Tinkerers of death. When the Russians started putting us in camps, I’d begun to start thinking we were next.”

“You must be very confused,” says the engineer. “These are different people. That much I know, and they don’t tell me anything.”

“Are they sending your people to fight this war, now that you have started it?”

The engineer gets to his feet, steadily. “Here—I’ll show you something, before the sun sets.”

He reaches for one of the devices around him: a sand-coloured wedge with binocular insets, sitting on a tripod stand.

“It’s fixed tight, but try not to move it,” he says, flipping up the lens caps. “It took the whole afternoon to get it aligned.”

The teacher clambers over to where the engineer has made room, and peers through the lenses. At first, he can see nothing but red. Then his eyes focus: he’s looking at the familiar shape of the mountains, south of the village, bathed by the sun. Only that the land’s been bathed in shades of orange and crimson, as if the sun has cracked and spilled all over it, setting it aflame; only the trail, winding up to the village, remains pale grey.

“Do you see the threads?” the engineer asks.

The teacher blinks, and then he does. Cascading over the hilltops like spiders’ legs, bleeding from the sky, thin and white. They flicker as if with the wind, or smoke from a candle flame. At the base of each thread is a dark point at the bottom of the valley. A number of things are moving into the pass. Moving slowly, from very far away, walking as if tethered to the air. As on that first night: the sensation of crawling flies.

The sun dips into the hills. The threads quiver in the mist. The things at the end of the thread stir to life, pulling themselves up the rocks of the pass.

A sense of impending disaster grips the teacher. “The fakir,” he breathes.

“Not the man, I’m afraid. What you are seeing are empty vessels. Slow-footed, but they’re tenacious. The target can feel them with his mind, but he will not penetrate them. From these disturbances I can calculate his position.” He gives the machine a gentle stroke—is that faint pride in his gesture, or just another performance? “My friends will take care of the rest.”

At this, the teacher can only nod.

The engineer sighs, breath drifting with the air. “Listen, I don’t know what you’ve been hearing, but whatever war you’re thinking of, it’s not that. This is a quieter war we’re fighting, a stranger one—one that none of us can afford to lose.”

“And your friends share in this vision?”

“For the time being,” he smiles.

There’s a knowingness to the engineer’s voice that makes no mystery of who he is referring to. Still, never best to rush to a judgment: waiting truth catches the unprepared.

Instead, the teacher stands up and offers a hand. “I’ll take my leave before they return. I hope your people find what you’re looking for.”

The engineer shakes it. His hands are cold, but firm.

“For everyone’s sake—I hope we do, too.”

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