Kyrgyzstan by Thomas Depenbusch
Night in Bishkek
By William T. Hathaway
A shot woke the man. He lifted his head, not knowing where he was or who the warm, softly breathing woman snuggled next to him was. Maybe he’d dreamed the shot. He closed his eyes and spooned in closer to her, hoping it had been a dream and she was real. A short burst of gunfire. Not a dream: the unforgettable hammering of an AK-47. A scream from outside. That was no dream either; it was death, as familiar as the AK. A kill shot sounds different from a wound, more abrupt; the cry doesn’t come out of pain but the shock of farewell.
Where were they? Where was his rifle?
Light filled the room, searing his eyes. The Asian woman looked lovely but death-pale in the shadowless flash. Concussion fell on them in a smothering slap, then fled, taking the light. The room wobbled. Satchel charge. Sappers must’ve broken through.
In the darkness the woman wailed.
It was one thing for the bastards to try to kill him; those were fair rules of the hard game: he was the foreign invader. But they’d better leave her out of it. As he sat up, she clutched his waist; her long black hair flowed over small breasts. She babbled a language he didn’t understand but knew said, Protect me.
Where was his rifle?
Machine gun bursts, long and ripping. Brass casings plinged onto pavement. She clung tighter. But these shots were outgoing: maybe the machine gun was friendly.
Shouts from down in the street—Russian. Soviet advisors with the North Vietnamese? Penetrating downtown Nha Trang, Tet Offensive. How many? Had to be at least a battalion to have Russians with them. Then his odds were low. If now was his time to die, he was ready; his bags stayed packed. But until then…he’d see what he could do.
What were they blowing? Something down the block.
Jeff Madsen rolled out of bed, naked, vulnerable, groping for his M-16. Not there…nothing. Now he couldn’t protect her.
Trucks revved. Metal screeched, pushed over concrete. More shouts. The machine gun tore holes in the night.
The sounds weren’t close, though, and no rounds were coming in their direction. The danger wasn’t critical, unless the VC started a house-to-house search. In that case she’d be better off without him.
He held her to him, stroked her shoulder, and kissed the corners of her liquid eyes. The dark delta between her legs caught his sight.
The memory of a few hours ago brought back a flood of others. There’s nothing like the primal act of mating to put reality into perspective. A third of a century returned in a flash, jamming the pieces of his life back into place. This wasn’t Vietnam, it was Kyrgyzstan. He didn’t meet her in a Special Forces bar but at the embassy…Ainoura. And he wasn’t in his twenties anymore but in his fifties. Instead of an infantry advisor, he was now a State Department foreign aid official. But somebody out there was turning Bishkek into a combat zone.
Jeff picked his slacks and polo shirt off a chair and put them on. They were civilian, felt flimsy. He stepped to the window to pull back an edge of curtain; she hissed no, but he did it anyway. It was her curtain, but he had to see how close they were.
He looked out over the sprawling Central Asian capital and the Kyrgyz Air Force base across the street. At the corner a metal gate had been blown open. It had been part of a walled perimeter, had blocked a road leading into the base. Next to the guard house lay a soldier, chest dark with blood, a stubby rifle strapped across it. Two trucks—a pickup and a semi—were driving over the runway. A machine gun was sandbagged atop the cab of the pickup, and the men behind it wore ski masks and long robes in the eighty-degree heat. He moved toward the door. To defend her, he had to get the rifle.
“Don’t go,” said Ainoura, her English returning. She folded her arms over her breasts.
“I’ll keep them away from here.” The force of ancient reflexes was propelling him out. His brain knew he was in Kyrgyzstan, but that didn’t matter, part of him was still back in Vietnam, had always been there, and that part was in charge now. Combat again. No choice.
“I’ll be back.” He waved, but it was half a salute; then he was out the door, running on automatic pilot.
A full moon filled the hot, deserted street with silvery light. Rows of ramshackle three-story apartment buildings stopped at the wall of the air base. Wisps of cordite smoke floated and swayed; the acrid incense of death, its odor brought back airstrikes in rain forests, mortar barrages in rice paddies. The war of his youth seized him and dragged him back into battle.
The Kyrgyz soldier at the gate was dead, staring upward with eyes dull and distant. Thirty-five years ago, John Randall had lain like that in a paddy while Jeff held his hand and apologized to his corpse. A wave of remorse, still fresh, swept over him.
Most of the sentry’s tan uniform was stained ruddy brown, and without blood his skin was pale. About eighteen, he’d been trying to grow a mustache. Even in death his expression held the hopeful curiosity of youth. The boy would have wished other than a chest full of holes for himself. So would his family.
Jeff could see human figures behind the curtains of dark apartments, but no one came out. He peered through the twisted gate. Across the runway the raiding trucks halted in front of a building. Toward them, down the airstrip, drove two Kyrgyz police jeeps, sirens shrilling.
From the back of the pickup a raider leveled a recoilless rifle, a long tube for firing rockets, at the police jeeps. Fire spewed from both ends. The round skipped off the runway and exploded in the air, a brief yellow blossom in front of the jeeps.
The defenders swerved and turned. They fired pistol shots, their little pops puny compared to the recoilless rifle.
On the invading pickup, the RR loader slid another rocket into the tube; the gunner corrected his lead and shot. This round hit a police jeep broadside, knocked it over, swallowed it in fire. Bodies tumbled through the blaze and black smoke. Flames danced on the concrete; in their orange light a man writhed and screamed, the sound high and airless.
Jeff wished he could snuff out the fire, cup the dying man in his hands, and blow life back into him. Take him home, God. Take us all home.
The other jeep turned 180. As it fled, machine gun tracers chased it, ricocheting off the runway like shooting stars. The gunner found his range, and lines of light plunged into the jeep. It drove faster, trailing wails, until the driver slumped over the wheel. As it veered and slowed, a policeman leaped out, fell, staggered to his feet, and ran. Lights sparked toward him, seeking him; he whirled, arms waving, a dervish in the stars. Jeff thought he would be hit, but he kept running and finally disappeared in shadows.
Jeff nodded his congratulations after the running man.
Machine gun tracers skipped back to the jeep, silencing the cries. The Kyrgyz Air Force troops shot up a mortar flare, which burst open in the purple sky and cast a stark, swaying glare onto the land.
A dozen raiders in gas masks leaped from the back of the semi. One of them threw something against the door of the building; the others flattened against its wall.
The door blew in. Two of the raiders ran to the hole, tossed in grenades. Instead of an explosion, gray smoke curled out: tear gas. Coughing soldiers emerged from inside the building. A machine gun burst dropped the first three in the doorway; the other two raised their arms in surrender. They paused, gagging, until their need for air pushed them forward. They stepped over their piled comrades and raised their arms higher. The machine gun crumpled them over onto the others.
The raiders ran across the bodies and into the building. Jeff was starting to dislike them.
Air force troops peered around the corners of barracks, shouted back to those hiding, all of them confused and frightened. One hoisted his automatic rifle around a corner, sprayed a full magazine wildly at the trucks, then ducked back. More sirens…the chuffing of a helicopter.
Jeff checked the civilian streets and saw they were quiet; there was no assault outside the base. Ainoura was safe.
The raiders emerged from the building carrying a heavy object on a wooden pallet. Straining, they lifted it into the semi, then climbed in after it.
A Kyrgyz Air Force helicopter, louder now, flew around a hangar and passed low over the trucks. The thieves on the pickup swiveled their machine gun skyward. The chopper hooked back, leveled out, and opened fire on the pickup. Phosphorescent streaks met in both directions as they dueled. The rising tracers from the truck fell behind the chopper: the pickup gunner’s lead was off. He corrected, sparks flew as he hit the fuselage, but he was too late. He jerked as the chopper riddled him, then slid limply down. The chopper widened its fire to the rest of the pickup. The recoilless gunner and loader crouched and covered their heads before they died. A spatter of dark holes appeared on the roof of the cab.
A raider leaped from the back of the semi and lifted a long cylinder from the bed of the truck. He adjusted the firing tube over his shoulder and aimed its missile at the chopper; a flash illumined his masked face. A blazing dart reached the aircraft, which exploded into a furious sun, silhouetting its frame and four humans in fire, and fell to earth, crashing with a whomp of aluminum on concrete. The chopper bounced once, rotor still whirling, tail breaking loose and dangling, then crunched down into a flaming hulk. A door gunner freed himself, stumbled out, and hobbled a few steps before fire covered him and brought him to the ground. The blaze filled the cockpit; strapped in, the pilot flailed his head and arms. Jets of light sprayed from the wreck with loud cracks as rockets and cartridges cooked off in the inferno. A rocket spurted along the runway and exploded against a hangar. The pilot sat still, turning black.
Another dad who won’t come home, thought Jeff. What happens to the kids? His father—killed in Korea after the peace talks started. He saw again his mother’s face that never lost its grief. Here he was, still at war, caught in the grip of the fever again. That’s what happens to the kids: they grow up to be soldiers.
Aviation fuel flames washed over the runway, spread toward the trucks. The pickup burst ablaze from its own leaking gasoline. A wounded raider tried to limp away, but his robes caught fire. He stumbled and fell, then crawled frantically before being engulfed. Chanting aloud, he raised his hands beseechingly, then prostrated himself in a final bow of prayer.
Al-Qaeda? Could be. Or maybe Taliban, Jeff thought. The jihad comes to Kyrgyzstan…spreading like those flames.
Whatever they were stealing, he didn’t want them to have it. Especially terrorists. He had to try to stop them, even if they killed him. Death might be an improvement. Lots of things were worse than dying, and he’d been through some of them lately.
The chopper burned next to the pickup, the two enemy crews side by side. Gouts of flame burst from the hangar as a plane inside ignited.
The tide of fire on the runway reached the semi; the truck was rolling, its wheels blazing circles. As it raced beyond the fire’s edge, the SAM man ran and leaped onto the back; comrades’ arms pulled him in. The truck turned and drove towards Jeff.
Stop them. No matter what it takes. Jeff looked down at the young sentry; flies had found his drying eyes, and he smelled of the decay we all carry inside us.
Since you won’t need this, maybe I can settle a score for you…and for lots of other people, Jeff told him as he pulled off the submachine gun, still warm and wet from his gushed-out life. He unbuckled and took the web belt holding the ammunition pouches; it was too small, so he hooked it over his shoulder.
The submachine gun looked like an Uzi, but its rough metal work showed it to be the Czech prototype the Israelis had adapted. Jeff had fired the Israeli improvement at Bragg…a long time ago. He couldn’t remember where the safety was. He found a switch and flicked it. The barrel was too short to be accurate at distance; he’d have to wait till they were close. A dark exaltation surged through him as his combat instincts took over. Death was no big deal. Not theirs. Not his own.
In the sky the flare sputtered and went out, leaving them in moonlight. The troops lofted another, a soaring stem of sparks that burst into a radiant blossom. Jeff glanced toward the air force barracks, hoping for signs of a counterattack, but saw only soldiers huddled in shadows. Guys, it’s good you can see, but it takes more than looking. Fight back, damnit!
Jeff darted into the street and tried to push the blasted metal gate shut. Still hot, it burned his hand. He pushed it with the gun butt; it closed but swung back open when he released it.
He returned to the sentry: Need your help. He dragged his limp body to the gate and laid it against the metal to prop it shut. The boy didn’t mind. From their side it might look barricaded; they’d at least slow down.
The wooden guard house had been scorched and half blown down by the initial explosion at the gate. He took a chair from it, leaned it against the concrete wall, and stood on it. It wobbled but held his 190.
At sixty meters, the semi was close enough for him to see a masked face behind the wheel. He aimed at it, squeezed off a burst, and punched holes in the hood. Either the battle sight was off or he’d lost the skill. He aimed the next burst at the roof. It shattered the windshield and the face behind it. Must be the battle sight.
As the truck swerved, the man next to the slumping driver grabbed the wheel. Jeff tried to give him three across the chest to match the sentry’s. He missed. The man lowered his head to a crescent above the hood and kept steering. From the back a guy hung out and fired a rifle at Jeff, but his aim was shaky. Jeff emptied the magazine at the cab, bracing into the satisfying jolts of the recoil. The crescent disappeared; the truck slowed and stalled.
A dozen raiders jumped from the back. With their ski masks and AK-47s, they looked to Jeff like hooded priests of a religion of death. As he reloaded, his adrenalin rush overrode the fear. He was back in action. All that mattered was the mission: Stop them.
Several thieves leaned against the truck to steady their aim as they fired their AKs; Jeff ducked as chips of concrete stung his face. They were good. He didn’t want to look back over the wall, but he had to. When he did, a man in rippling robes and black mask was running towards him holding a grenade. He stopped and pulled the pin, but as he raised his arm, Jeff sent him a burst. The raider fell, the grenade rolled away, and he crawled for it as Jeff traded fire with his comrades by the truck. Although the man’s wound was interfering with his crawling, he was trying very hard to reach the grenade. As he seized it, it went off, taking his arm and half his head away.
The others redoubled their fire at Jeff, but now their bursts were too long to be accurate. His proto-Uzi wasn’t as good as their AKs at this distance, but their truck offered worse cover than his wall. He could see one thief’s knees as he knelt by the corner of the semi. When he hit them, the guy toppled away from the truck. The man’s legs just flopped when he tried to move them, so he pulled himself toward cover with his forearms. Jeff hesitated. This crawling creature was a human being, like him, like the sentry. But his side had started the killing. Jeff raised his submachine gun and held the man in his sights. A voice inside said, Don’t kill him. But another voice yelled, They’re trying to kill you! He forced his finger against the trigger and hit the raider again.
A comrade darted out to rescue the man. He bent down, grabbed his hand, and dragged him to the truck, then his body twitched from Jeff’s bullets. He fell on top of the other, and the two lay humped together.
Instead of Enemy, Jeff saw them now as pathetic humans. Ex-humans, thanks to him. He wished he hadn’t shot them—too much death in the world. A feeling of dank foulness crept over him, but he shook it off.
The others pulled men out of the cab, one screaming, one still. They tried to start the truck.
Jeff shot at the tires. Sparks flew from the hubs, but the rubber stayed firm. He fired at the grille to puncture the radiator, but no water ran out. Battle equipped.
Troops from the base, dark figures in firelight, gathered at the building and began shooting at the semi.
Another raider ran towards Jeff, his shawl flapping like a cape, and threw a grenade. Jeff glimpsed its trajectory, jumped down, and dived into the remains of the guard house, hoping the plywood would at least slow the shrapnel. He lay head covered, afraid to die. The grenade thunked to the ground. Just as he thought it was a dud, it exploded.
A blast of white heat singed his body; concussion lifted him into the air, slammed him against the wall, jabbed his eardrums. The roar battered them and popped his eyes open. A wall was falling on top of him, the floor heaving. He closed his eyes and saw a spray of light as a plywood slab crashed into his head.
He crawled out of the splintered guard house. He could hear nothing. The smoke smelled like a thousand Fourth of Julys. Running men could be almost on him. Expecting a grenade, he glanced around the gate. The semi was rolling towards him; those thieves who could move were jumping into the back.
Seared and bleeding from shrapnel punctures, Jeff limped across the street and hid behind a building. The semi slowed at the gate, then pushed through, its Mercedes emblem gleaming like a peace symbol. The gate nudged the sentry’s body and scraped past, leaving it in the road. The wheels of the truck rolled over it, compressing it so that each tire bounced less than the one before. The limbs jerked under the wheels.
Jeff ran, too afraid to shoot. As he fled, he remembered a saying of General Giap, the North Vietnamese commander who had outsmarted the Pentagon: “Knowing when to quit is half the battle.”
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