Bonus Chapter - 'Salid'
Wounded, pinned down and all but out of ammo, Salid Abdul pressed his back up against a rock. Fragments of stone shattered around his head. The bullets zinged and shrieked above him, not quite cutting the angle needed to send him to the next world.
Abdul squeezed his eyes tight as tiny splinters of rock exploded into his face, instantly calling up freckles of blood. His breathing was heavy and erratic. There was no one left. He mumbled a prayer to Allah and rolled as fast as he could to the next boulder. It was the only way he was going to survive this, skipping and bursting through the line of fire from the temporary haven of one boulder to the next. The Americans were getting closer. Damn them!
Damn the great Satan! How had he ended up in this cave? He knew this was where he would die, but he couldn’t think of how it had turned out this way.
He had been forced into an area of the caves he’d never been before. He thought it incredible that he could live for two years hiding with his master, keeping him safe, and still there were so many areas he had never trodden. The cave tunnels were massive. An intricate maze weaving their way through the mountains on the Afgan–Pakistan border, they provided an endless abundance of safe havens from the relentless onslaught of the UN and NATO forces. Ever since that glorious execution on the 9th of September back in 2001, the plan they had worked on for years, the months and months of training, it had all come into effect.
Right now, Salid would trade it all for a way out. That snake. That snake had left him here to die. That snake had sent him and his men down here as a decoy while they saved their own skin. He was no Imam, he was nothing more than a snake. Salid had everything he had been doing, was for the glory of Allah, but now … now he had doubt. Gunfire echoed down the tunnel. The short bursts of light from the muzzle the only thing giving life to this dead place. The beam of the searchlight came again and Salid Abdul shrank back. The beam passed and swept into the other tunnel, the one heading down the opposite direction. The warrior took his chance. Pressing the butt of his bolt action rifle into his shoulder, Salid took careful aim. He knelt out in the open for the briefest of moments, relying on the pureness of cave dark to shroud and protect him as his unit of men could not. Salid took a deep breath in, then let out half his lung-full slowly and squeezed.
The bolt-action 30-06 kicked hard, and in the same instant the glass from the massive jeep-mounted searchlight exploded in a shattering boom! The tunnel was again instantly plunged into darkness. Salid held his breath, not daring to make a sound in the silence that followed the initial confusion. They would expect him to run, to give away his position by his foot-falls. But he would not run. Nor would he give up his location by the flash of his muzzle. Salid was too old and too experienced to make any basic mistakes, and if they wanted to kill him, they would have to work for their prize.
He waited maybe a minute until the men with hand-held torches rounded the bend. He slowly felt his way along the wall and found another branch in the passage, this one leading slightly down. Down was bad, but he didn’t have a choice. His heart pounded in his ears like the war drums of an ancient tribe. Salid was terrified.
He inched his way along the wall and felt the stone with his free hand. The contours and moisture of the walls guided him along the warren. How he had been driven in to an unknown area of the caves Salid didn’t recall, but he knew that he had done what he had to in order to survive and right now that was all that mattered.
He felt the wind first. The whooshing wind of something passing by and disturbing the ancient stone and air of these holy caves. He didn’t have time to contemplate what might have caused it, as the explosion had answered that for him.
The flash was massive and the sound shook the very foundation he was standing on, or so it seemed to Salid. In the distance, he heard two more explosions from what could only have been rocket-propelled grenades. Salid was only concerned with the enormous chunks of rock and stone flew through the air all around him. The impact had been far too close to where he was, and had he still been standing in the same spot as moments ago, he would surely be dead.
When the Islamist militant finally opened his eyes, he was greeted with the strangest sight.
There was light coming from further down the tunnel, but not in the middle of the tunnel, nor from some torch still burning. No this light was coming from the wall itself, or at least some crack in it.
Salid could hear footsteps as small parties were sent up each of the major arteries in the nervous system of passages. They would be here any moment, and they had torches. They would see him and they would shoot him. He had to move. Just move.
He ran, no longer caring about the sound of his foot-falls. His only chance was to get far enough away to re-establish a hiding spot and wait for the Americans to give up on their search, which could be days. So Salid ran to the light, for lack of anything better to do, and as he drew closer saw that it was indeed a crack in the wall through which the light was pouring. He was far too deep in the tunnels to be close to an outer wall, yet that’s what it seemed like.
Could it be? Saild picked up a rock and started bashing at the crack in the wall, and sure enough as the stone surrounding the crack fell away, there was a thin shaft of light beaming through.
Footsteps pounded from behind him. They were almost at the fork into his side tunnel. They would be here in seconds, and he had no time to escape; he could not out-run their torchlight. He had next to no ammunition with which to defend himself.
Salid Abdul grabbed the last remaining grenade hanging from his belt and pulled the pin. He then dropped it into the small hole he had created by bashing with his rock. He knew the blast would give away his location, but that didn’t matter now. The torches would find him in a moment anyway.
He stood to the side as the blast blew outwards. The sound so close was deafening, and instantly rocks were blown with ferocity
against the opposite wall. More wall fell away and light streamed into the tunnel where Salid stood. Rocks from the ceiling and walls were already unstable began to rain down, slamming into Salid’s head and back.
The Arab needed no further coaxing. Throwing his rifle through first, Salid dove headlong into the watermelon-sized hole, cutting his clothing and skin as his legs caught on the jagged rocks.
In the tunnel, a hail of rocks continued to fall, blocking the hole behind Salid, sealing him in. As the American troops came round the corner into the tunnel where they had heard the blast, they were greeted with was a cloud of dust and the last of the falling rocks.
Lieutenant Dan McCabe watched as the torch mounted on the stock of his MP-5 sub-machine gun pierced into the dust. He shook his head and reached up to his shoulder-mounted microphone. Thumbing the switch he spoke into the static.
‘That’s a negative fox-trot, the asshole saved us the trouble. We’re gonna look for a body, but this rubble’s pretty thick. He’ll wanna hope the blast finished the job, cause if he’s buried under there it’s gonna be a slow, painful death. Sea-biscuit out.’
The drop to the floor couldn’t have been more than ten feet, but he landed hard. Salid lay where he fell. He simply breathed, his senses exhausted, his nerves shot. He had been fighting for the last four hours, and running for the last two of that. Now, finally, he was still. He didn’t care if the Americans found him, he had lost the will to run any more.
It was a full thirty seconds before he noticed that it wasn’t rock he was lying on. His sense of touch noticed it first. The metal was cool, and the jagged notches of the grate pressed hard into his face. Without moving, Salid opened his eyes.
What he saw took his breath away. For a start, he was looking down. He was looking through the grill that he was lying on. He didn’t understand. How could there be a metal grill in the very deepest bowels of this network of caves? No human had trodden here for centuries, if ever. But still, here it was. It was what he saw through the grill, however, that caught his attention.
Salid was laying on some kind of walkway about two hundred feet above the ground in a massive cavern ringed by more walkways. Through the grill he looked down on the roof-tops of a group of
buildings, like a small city. The buildings ranged in shapes and sizes, from polished metal domes to flat, concreted rectangles.
The entire cavern was illuminated, with lights built into almost all the railings, structures and walls themselves. It was bright, and large. Off in the distance, maybe seven or eight hundred feet away, he saw what he could swear was a large area of grass like football field he had seen on television when he once visited the city. How was grass growing deep in the bowels of the Afghan mountains? Salid lifted his head and took in the rest of the cave. There were giant TV screens everywhere, monitors Salid had never seen the likes of.
The incandescent blue glow cast by the ambient light lifted the technology out of the backdrop of hewn rock in which it was embedded. His eyes scanned the circumference of the mini-city below him, and nowhere could he see any doors which looked like they led into or out of the expanse.
Right in the centre of all the buildings was a smaller circular stage. It was raised in the rock platform like a showcase. The rest of the machinery, wires, screens and computers faced the circular stone platform; it was no larger than a boxing ring. An illuminated pattern of green strips looped and crossed the surface of the stage, like landing lights for a runway set against the natural rock surface. It was a strange juxtaposition of the natural and the synthetic, and for Salid none of it made any sense.
From being on the verge of no longer caring whether he lived or died, the Muslim freedom fighter suddenly wanted to find out more. He was intrigued.
Forcing himself to his feet, he marveled at the amazing facility before him and thought about how beautiful it all looked. In a life filled with horror, war and suffering, Salid Abdul’s life ended with a thought of beauty.