Author's note: If you find this hard to follow, read the sections in reverse order. The story is written the way the memories are burned in.

I slammed awake, immediately full-body tense and ready to spring. A moment of complete panic while I tried to remember where - and when - I was. For a moment, I thought I was still in the dingy room across the border and the sunlight told me I had already missed my best shot at getting back.

Even after the moment passed and I realized I was safe on the 8th floor overlooking an airport on the right side of the border, I laid there panting and willing my body to uncoil.

"Jesus," I remember saying to nobody. "Jesus fucking Christ. I hope this shit stops soon."

I cried a little, then, and chose to go back to sleep.

I had booked myself three days in the hotel before the flight back to the States. I knew I needed the time to wind down a little mentally and to just physically recover. I was also hoping to shake off the last of the Slav Slime I'd picked up off some contagious conscripts who had been crammed into a Lada with me while we trafficked in black market car parts and found some lunch.

It was the first time my driver had failed me, and boy did he make it worth it.

"One quick stop on travel to lunch," he had said. "Small favor for a friend."

It was three hours zigzagging across the city looking for a couple of wheel studs that would fit the shitbox we eventually pulled up to in the back lot of a Soviet era tenement. Three hours of getting coughed on by conscripts. Three hours of knowing from the very first wet hack that whatever the fuck this illness was, I was absolutely guaranteed to get some for myself. Three hours of looking out of the fogged up windows and wondering if the deal was going to buck out from under me the way it sure seemed like it was going to.

The fever and sweats started less than 24 hours later, and lasted the entire rest of the job and into the second day on the 8th floor. It had made walking the last couple kilometers and getting through customs a feverdream. I wonder how many Americanskis they saw go through full of piss and vinegar, and come stilting back a notch down on their belt and looking like roadkill?

At least one.

When I woke up, I would put on the only pair of clothes I had left, head down to the lobby, unpeel a crisp, starchy doubloon in the local denomination and order two pieces of chocolate cake and two Jamesons. I'd been doing that every few hours for a day and a half, and by now the pretty bartenders all knew me on sight. The filthy (literally muddy) American who is unflinchingly polite and tips biiiiiiiiig. One of them would scurry off as soon as they saw my face betwixt the parting elevator doors. No need anymore for choppy English or pointing at the menu - just hand over what a part of my brain told me was a sixty dollar bill with a quiet if mangled thank you, and go sit in the corner booth. If I forgot the doubloon up front or just didn't feel like digging in my pocket, they would bring the order out anyway, knowing it would be under the cake plate when I wandered back to the elevator.

They didn't ask me any questions, they were soft spoken, they put the plates and glasses down gently next to me instead of in front of me, and as far as I am concerned a detachment of hardass embassy Marines could not have made me feel safer and quieter.

When the cake and the booze arrived I would consume it silently, listening to the stringers and wannabes swap tall tales right out of Soldier of Fortune and pretend like they'd been there. There was an Americanski who claimed to have been on the hot front for 4 months. He looked like what the Fremen would have described as water-fat. He looked like a smooth extruded GI Joe with the toggling biceps and ten exciting phrases at the touch of a button. He had gone exactly as far across the border as was necessary to secure some knife-clenched-in-a-skull's-jaws souvenir teeshirts and was now spending his time picking up thirdhand stories to feed to his blog and to whip out in bars for the rest of his life.

This late in the war, what I'm quite sure happened is that he showed up unannounced with no usable skills and no local contacts, and walked around looking for some unit to take him in. When nobody wanted to take on a war tourist liability, he wandered back to wait out his visa in a hotel bar and hoped to catch a clueless stringer to tell war stories to, whether they were his or not.

A long time ago I read about a subspecies of these creatures that inhabited the hotel bars in Karachi during the mujahidin times.

The final checkpoint was pretty heavy. Four trucks and the dudes that fit into them. Two alert sentries on either side of the road. Not many made it this far up the road leading to the foot crossing, especially not in a private vehicle. I already knew the drill by this point and was reaching for my passport as the conscript flashed his credentials.

A brief exchange with no translation.

"You are good from here. That gate goes to the crossing. I can't go any farther than this."

"No problem," I said. "I owe you."

"Yes," the conscript said. "When you come back, even if it is after the war, the Major will send me."

I held out two cans of Monster and the last pack of American Marlboros from the ultralight. I don't like them myself, but they are recognized currency in the entire known world. He flashed me a grin and reached out with the last of the Winstons in his hand. I swapped him, shouldered the bags, and asked if he needed the armor.

"No, my brigade has equipment."

I flashed him a Vermont gang sign and walked into the chute, following the snaking scrap metal fencing until I found the end of the line to cross. I felt like a bag of smashed assholes and figured it was going to be a long, cold, wet day, and I was right. The Slav Slime was kicking my ass and I was dead tired. An hour into the queue and I found myself under the shelter of an enormous UN aid tent, empty now, that had been erected over a portion of the queue pavement. It was as good a place as I was likely to find to squat and refuel. The line wasn't due to move for another 20 minutes and the next lurch would probably take me out of the tent. The ultralight yielded candy bars. The bottom of the cordura bag yielded a Zojirushi full of hot tea. I squatted off the side of the pavement and couldn't help but feel like the eyes of the entire crowd were on me.

Furtive spotting over the steaming Zojirushi lid-mug told me that I was just wired too fucking tight. I commended myself for keeping it together and ate something chocolatey that I couldn't read, purple and gold foil disappearing into a pocket until I found the next trashcan.

The next time the line lurched, I could see the checkpoint building. Two hours later, I was back on the right side of the border and shoving the bags into an unlicensed taxi to the airport hours away.

I dozed while the hack screamed into his phone and fumbled bootleg cassettes in and out of the dash.

He ripped me off on the last kilometer or so to the hotel, but I was too fucking tired to argue. I slapped him out his cash and hoofed it. By the time I got to the hotel entrance, I considered stopping to burn one of the Winstons, but I was afraid I'd fall asleep on the bench, so I slimed into the lobby and headed up to the 8th floor.

The deal had gone so sideways it was no longer meaningful to describe in those terms.

The deal had in fact fucked right off to Dallas to go whoring and gambling until the money run out. But when the deal got to Dallas and rented a drop top and was cruising with a hooker in its lap and the breeze in its hair, it caught a hot one right in its fucking face from the far side of the same grassy knoll they got JFK from, and the hooker copped the bankroll out of the deal's hip pocket before she fled, bloody, into the clamor of the evening.

Among other things, the Major's people had unilaterally extended the duration and scope of my obligations, and had decided that it was preferable to keep the gear than to arrange for official procurement.

When it had come time to bail, my only good local contact had arranged for an off-duty driver with the proper credentials and someone's personal vehicle, a beautiful late model silver Audi wagon, to get me to the closest open crossing. Thirty minutes before military curfew was officially lifted, there was a tap tap at the door of the dingy room. I had been packed and waiting for hours. I recognized the driver - he'd been the same guy who brought me this way on the trip in with the Major and the others. I was relieved. He spoke good English. I recalled that he was a conscript and not a career soldier.

"Drive is five hours. We check in one hour which crossing is open for foot crossing and make turn from there. If you are ready we leave right now."
The lobby man from the hotel is standing behind him, disheveled and confused. I presume the driver had just booted the front door, flashed his credentials, and demanded to be allowed inside on official business. I didn't look twice at the lobby man as I shouldered my bags and walked out. I was sifting through the filing cabinets to remember everything I could about the conscript.

On the way to the facility from the crossing over, the rest of the guys, including the surly fixer who had been playing terp for me for a few days, were all busy checking in with work and family, making arrangements, and dozing. The conscript had been silent for the first hour, until he rolled the window down to smoke. I needed one too, so I tapped him on the shoulder to let him know I was going to share the window from behind him, perched on the front row of the windowless cattle compartment.

"No problem," he said. "Please do not put your cigarette in my ear."

I laughed and swore I wouldn't. He reached down to the center console and pried the ashtray loose, handing it back to me.

"You can tap it here," he said, "I will clean later."

We chatted for most of the rest of the drive. He seemed like a nice kid. When we stopped for piss and coffee, we stood out front and smoked while the others waited for rotary meat and discount espresso.

"The Major said you fought in Afghanistan." He stated the question.

"Yeah, couple times."

"You were volunteer, yes? We hear American army is volunteers only."

"Yeah," I said, "The last time we conscripted was in the early 70s."

"In my view, I think that is good. I am mobilized." He paused to drag his cigarette. Whatever he was smoking smelled like red fruity candy. "It is shit."

It was a peculiarity of his English - he was very careful to start any opinion with "In my view" and sometimes finish with "but that is just my opinion."

"Why do you say that?"

"In my view, you may think this is selfish, but I think the army does nothing for me. I wish to develop, I wish to travel, I wish to become better educated, but I am stuck with this stupid war, and the army does not organize well. Obviously the Russians are to blame, but the army is what I feel every day holding me back. But this is just my opinion."

I nodded, thinking back. "Some things are the same everywhere. Army is army."

Army is army. That would become a catchphrase when dealing with my friends on this side of the border, right up there with "something is better than nothing" and "wish in one hand".

That's right buddy. Wish in one hand, and shit in the other. See which one fills up first.

My memory was thusly refreshed as the conscript and I jumped in the Audi and he flicked us off into the predawn darkness.

Two hours into the five hour drive, he flicked the stereo in the Audi off.

"You should sleep," he said. "No checkpoint until two hours. I will wake you if they need to check your documents."

I nodded and told him I felt fine. I wanted to keep him company for the drive. I wanted to stay alert and keep an eye on the map. I wanted to be ready to pop that door open and bolt. I wanted to do a lot of things, but I don't think the first words even got out of my mouth before the quiet darkness fell down on me until he had to stomp the brakes four hours into the five hour drive, when an accident ahead announced the start of the border traffic.

I yelled something as I bolted upright.

"No problem! Just idiots ahead. No problem."

He fished in his pocket and pulled out two Winstons with the crushable flavor bead in the filter. I knew I was going to miss them when I got home.

He poked one of them at me. "You can sleep for one more hour."

I shook my head and adjusted my glasses while I scooped the lighter out of my pocket and popped the bead.

My phone chirped.

"You are popular," he said. "You have many messages. The Major says you can ignore."

My first drag of the rootytooty fruit punch Winston came out as a sigh that I couldn't help. They were looking for me. How much did the conscript know?

He answered my question for me.

"You can ignore," he insisted. "No problem. I will drop you past the final check. You can walk direct to crossing."

The phone chirped again. I could see from the lock screen that it was from the Major. I held the phone out so he could see.

"You can ignore," he said, gently. "This is the Major's car."

It was time to bail. That meant dropping every single nonessential ounce, packing everything as small as possible, and making sure that everything was packed by priority.

Two backpacks, one rigged as a sling bag. The sling bag is the first to get ditched in a scramble, that's got the armor and replaceable pro gear in it. The backpack is actually a backpack in a backpack - the outer one a nondescript heavy cordura backpack, the inner one an ultralight 20L. If I have to ditch the backpack, I can unzip the main compartment and snatch the ultralight. The ultralight will have to get pried out of my unwilling hands, but I can live without it. Cash, passport, travel phone, Polish burner, trash bag, beanie, spare glasses stuffed in pockets. Dunhills in my hoodie.

The garbage can in the bathroom was full of any clothes I wasn't wearing, except the packable rain shell in the ultralight. My local burner was in a shitcan in an alley on the other side of town, the battery was in another, the SIM broken and in another. My toilet kit, minus toothbrush, was going to watch me walk away from its place on the bathroom sink in the dingy room.

Curfew hit ten minutes ago. That meant the exterior doors were locked and I couldn't go outside to chainsmoke my brains out until the driver showed up. I didn't even have the details on who or when - I just had to trust that the Major was who I thought he was, and that he would be able to do what he had said he might be able to do.

From the second I realized the deal was fucked I'd been playing the trust game: Who to trust and with what?

I decided to crack the window in the dingy room as far as it would go and smoke through the gap. It was one of those annoying Euro-style windows that hinges at the bottom. I considered putting the chair on the low bed so I wouldn't have to crane my neck to blow smoke out into the narrow gap between the dingy hotel and the next building. I decided not to because falling from a chair on top of a bed and smashing into the narrow gap between the dingy bed and the dingy wall was exactly what I didn't need right at that moment.

"Fuck 'em," I said, craning my neck up to blow smoke. "Let them try to charge a smoking fee, I paid in cash anyway."

I knew it would be best if I slept or at least tried to. I knew I wouldn't be able to even lay still. I sat there and rationed the Dunhills until the conscript showed up a little before curfew lifted.

"I think there is some confusion."

The Major was speaking through the terp - the interpreter. The three of us were sitting in the first place we'd found open for breakfast on the main drag in the city, an hour or two before we were due at the facility. He'd hastily arranged the early morning meeting the day before, on the way out the door when the rest of the group had already made it halfway down the hallway.

"Yes," I said, sipping my Americano. "I think there is confusion at a level far above you and me."

"DA!" was the frustrated reply before the terp could even close his mouth to finish my part.

The Major screwed up his face and dug hard for the words. He was going to try some English on me, then shake his head and pull out the sky brain to translate. I knew this meant that this was his way of being sure that nothing got lost by the translator. It was faster to use the translator, but I had worked with him enough by then, using only patience and the sky brain, that he knew I would fight with him until understanding was achieved and confirmed.

He reached for his phone.


No translation necessary for that one. He pecked interminably.

This problem could be avoided if we were knowing ahead of time. The important decisions
are out of my hands and if I continue to repeat myself it is a kind of insubordination.

I hand him his phone back and nod slowly.

"You," he said, pointing, "me", he said, pointing, "no problem for me."

I reached my hand out across the table and he shook it with both of his.

"No problems," I said. "You understand what it is like to be a soldier and to be given bad orders with no good way forward. We are the same."

I waited for the terp to finish and paused.

I looked over at the terp before I spoke again. I had already played the trust game and decided that if the Major trusted him that I would have to trust him.

"I need your help," I said slowly and quietly. "Can you get me a driver and a car?"

He obviously understood enough to start thinking before the terp finished.

"When?" the Major asked me in English. "When you need? How far?"

"Soon," I said, reaching back down to my shitty coffee. "Saturday latest. Tomorrow best. Early. Border crossing."

He nodded. Once.

"I need reason."

I nodded back. Once. He needed cover just like I did.

"The batteries have been shipped. I need to be there to sign for them personally. $150,000 insurance on the package, I have to sign for it personally. Then I can arrange to have them sent here."

I took a long slurp of the coffee while the terp worked and the Major nodded "Da da da" and reached for his phone. There was an exchange, and the terp said,

"He agrees, this is the only way. You must go personally to sign, and the equipment does not work without them, so this is the only way and it is very urgent. He must act independently in this case."

Another exchange.

"He thinks he can get a driver with OK English, but if he can't, I will go."

"You ever need a reference letter," I said to the terp, killing the coffee, "You let me know. I'll write a solid one with good contact info."

He smiled. He smiled because he knew what that meant. He'd been working as a terp for long enough to understand the currency of the realm, and I was letting him know I was good for a bearer bond redeemable in gold.

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