22 Dec There’s Something in the Caves of Afghanistan, and it Doesn’t Want us There- CreepyPasta
I don’t know how long this will stay up for; three-letter agency spooks are usually pretty good at finding these sorts of things and shutting them down before it can spread too far. But hopefully I’ve left out just enough trigger words to keep their automatic software from picking this up immediately. But that probably won’t be enough in the end. They’ll find this, and me, and that’ll be the end of that.
You should also know that I’ve changed the names of everyone involved here, as well as some other details for sake of security and privacy. At least, for as long as I still have it. Some of these guys had family and I don’t want any of them stumbling across this.
It’s always difficult trying to decide where to begin this story, no matter how many times I’ve written this draft without hitting submit. But I suppose that everything really kicked off in early 2015 when my unit was deployed to Afghanistan. We’d been rotating in and out of country for going on three years by that point. Despite what the talking heads in DC said about draw-downs and sending troops home, there were more active operations in that part of the world than most people would imagine. They’d just gone under the radar. More clandestine activity, less open warfare than before. ‘Secret Squirrel Shit’ as our CO liked to put it. I won’t say exactly who we were. Comes with the nature of our job, you know. But to keep things broad our unit fell under the purview of the United States Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. A catch-all command structure for certain special forces units in the American military. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, hell I’m pretty sure there were even a few Coast Guard guys floating around in there somewhere. We weren’t the kind of guys to just walk around patrolling villages or sweeping for IED’s; that wasn’t in our job description. I still remember what one of my instructors said to me: “We do bad things to bad people.” You didn’t get into special forces because you wanted to win hearts and minds.
Most of our missions were pretty cut and dry. At least, as cut and dry as clandestine operations can be. Raids, HVT capture/kill stuff, and lots of intelligence gathering. I lost count of how many hours we wasted sitting on some frozen mountainside, staring through a spotting scope, counting how many times some potential insurgent went out to feed his goats. But in January of that year we all got thrown for a loop when some CIA ground branch agent showed up at our Forward Operating Base (FOB) seemingly out of nowhere, telling us that we were tasked with the most critical mission of the past fifty years, even moreso than the Bin Laden raid.
I’ll admit that not many of us believed him at first. But as he showed us recon photos, phone transcripts, surveillance footage, all the pieces fell into place and we all nearly shit a brick.
According to him, the CIA had been tracking a terrorist cell operating out of Afghanistan who were trying to get their hands on nuclear material. Either to make a dirty bomb or a proper nuke, it didn’t matter. Now this wasn’t news to us; Al Qaeda had been trying to obtain a nuclear bomb for decades at this point. But this group, simply known as “The Brotherhood”, had actually succeeded. Based on CIA intelligence they’d gotten in touch with a former Soviet general who had access to a non-trivial amount of nuclear material, specifically weapons grade plutonium. They’d gone into Tajikistan, done the deal, and were now on their way back to Afghanistan. CIA and other assets had tracked them as far as the Afghan border, and then they disappeared into the mountains seemingly without a trace.
And that’s where we came in.
“Operation Condor”. All in all it wasn’t a terribly complex mission. Find the bad guys, kill their asses, and secure the plutonium. But “simple” didn’t mean easy. The area was godawful mountain terrain, with almost zero friendly forces in the immediate vicinity, and with a strong enemy presence. We bounced ideas back and forth for a good few hours until settling on a plan. One team of ten guys, inserted via helicopter near the last known location of the target. They would hike in, engage the enemy, secure the asset, and then extract. It was tempting to send in every warm body we had for the extra firepower, but more men on the ground meant a more prominent signature for the enemy. It’s much easier to sneak ten dudes into a spot rather than forty.
I didn’t hesitate to volunteer. It wasn’t out of bravado, or wanting the glory, or hunting for that next adrenaline surge, or anything like that. I’d just gotten bored of doing nothing but tedious recon missions for weeks on end. Plus I’d attended some extra training for dealing with CBRN threats, so it made sense for me to tag along. After the team was picked we spent most of the night hammering out the details, trying to think of every possible contingency and how to plan for it. But we all knew there were certain things you just can’t see coming in advance. In the words of the great Mike Tyson, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
The moon was full the next night as we got our gear together and boarded the helicopters. Thankfully the snow had stopped, though it was still bitterly cold. I tried to bundle up as best I could in the back of the Chinook as it rumbled to life, the scream of the rotors soon drowning out the podcast I’d been blaring through my headset. Some guys just sat, others talked over the communication system onboard, but I just tried to sleep. You never knew when those extra few minutes of shuteye would come in handy later on.
Joey, our team lead, woke me when we were ten minutes out from the landing zone. I checked my equipment one last time and pulled the night vision goggles down over my eyes, flicking them on and blinking as my vision was filled with the pale green light. The airframe shook under us as the helicopter dipped below the mountain summits, winds buffeting the aircraft and shaking it like a tin can in a hurricane. But to his credit the pilot did his job and we touched down a few moments later, rushing out into the frigid night air as the rotor wash kicked up a flurry of snow and ice. As soon as the last man cleared the ramp the Chinook lifted off, blasting the squad with one last torrent of wind before disappearing into the night sky. And as the sound of the rotors faded to nothing more than a faint rumble in the distance we were left in nearly total silence, save for the low moaning of the wind through the mountain pass. The snow was up to my ankles, a light powder that seemed to vanish as soon as the wind caught it. We started moving right away, making our way up the side of the mountain with only our night vision to see.
It was just after three in the morning when we reached our first checkpoint, a rocky crag jutting out from the side of the mountain. Carlos, our radio guy, stopped to get the message back to command as we all took a knee and tried to catch our breath. I grew up in the mountains of Colorado and was no stranger to hoofing it long distances, but the altitude here was another beast entirely. I was still panting as he gave us the thumbs-up and relayed the return message from command: No new intel, stay on mission.
The sky to the east began to lighten as we made it to the next checkpoint a few hours later. Almost three hours of hiking and we’d covered less than two miles. Already we were tired and sore, but everyone put their discomfort aside to focus on the task at hand. Descending into a long draw that lead down towards the last known target location, the terrain began to change around us. Barren snow and rock gave way to thin forests of pine and shrub, offering us some concealment from any hostile eyes that may be watching. But if anything we were growing more anxious by the moment. Daylight was when the insurgents came out to play, especially around dawn.
Joey called us all together an hour later and we took a knee, talking in hushed voices.
“Alright,” He said, glancing between each of us. “We’ve got two options here. Either we keep going now and risk getting caught out in the daylight, or wait until dark. We’d have concealment, but it’s gonna be a bitch trying to find anything once the sun goes down, even with NOD’s. Thoughts?”
I pursed my lips for a moment. On paper Joey was the one in charge and it was entirely his decision to make. But we operated under a slightly more informal set of rules than standard ground troops. It might be his call in the end, but Joey wasn’t one to ignore input from his team.
Our medic, Andy, spoke up first. “I say we keep going. Trying to navigate this terrain is tough enough as is, doing it in the dark is just suicidal.”
I nodded in agreement. While our night vision made it possible to see in the dark, they also completely ruined any sense of depth perception. It would be all too easy to take a wrong step and tumble off the side of the mountain.
Carlos seemed to share the same opinion. “I’m with Andy and Dave, that shit was bad enough when we came in. I don’t wanna be looking for some nuke when we’re stumbling around out there.”
In the end we all reached the same conclusion. Push on and try to complete the mission, even if that meant doing it in daylight. Joey nodded. “Alright, let’s get a move on then. Dave, you’re on point.” He gestured to me.
The landscape glowed with a faint gold tint as the sun finally crested over the horizon. Taking advantage of the long shadows cast by the trees around us, we moved through the forest while surveying the slopes on either side, searching for anything that seemed out of place. Easier said than done; Al Qaeda and other insurgent groups were experts at hiding camps and gun emplacements in these mountains, invisible until it was too late. Short of thermal optics from drones or planes overhead they could be nearly impossible to spot. And the going was getting rougher. Loose shale rocks crumbled underfoot, making each step treacherous.
It didn’t take long for my own luck to run dry. I took a step and felt the rocks slipping out from under my boot, shooting my arm out to reach for a tree branch. But there was nothing there. Just empty space. I cursed under my breath and tried regaining my footing to no avail. One foot slipped, then the other, and then I was skidding down the slope. I tumbled once, thankfully landing on my pack with an “oof” as the air was driven from my lungs, frantically trying to find some way to stop my descent. And finally I found it. My arms wrapped around a thin pine sapling and I dug my heels in, grimacing as the spindly tree bent and bowed but thankfully held. Taking a few deep breaths, I finally hoisted myself back up onto my knees, checking my body and equipment for any damage. Aside from some minor scrapes everything appeared in order.
“Fuck, you good dude?” Joey suddenly appeared at my side, reaching out to grab my hand. But as I sat up to take it he froze, eyes widening and mouth hanging open, staring at something over my shoulder. I turned and very nearly lost my footing again, heart leaping into my throat and adrenaline shooting through my veins like ice.
Lying beneath a small rock outcropping not five feet from where I’d stopped was a man, clad in traditional afghan dress and very obviously dead. Blood spatter coated the rocks around him, from what I could only assume were the wounds he had suffered leading to his death. The left side of his skull had been caved in, the eyeball hanging loosely and dangling against his cheek. His jaw was twisted and snapped at an unnatural angle, and three of his ribs jutted through the fabric of his winter jacket, soaking the beige fabric in crimson. I winced at the sight and took a step back, suddenly realizing I’d raised my rifle and had it trained on his forehead. I lowered it and let out a breath. “Fucking christ!”
Andy moved up, poking the corpse a few times to ensure the man was well and truly dead. “Doesn’t look like he was shot.” He mumbled, turning the body over and holding up an AK-47 that had been pinned underneath it. Pulling out the magazine, he scowled. “Empty. Who’s walking around out here with an empty rifle?”
“Nobody smart.” One of our machine-gunners, Thomas, piped up. “Think he fell, doc? Maybe busted himself up hitting all these trees and rocks and shit?”
Andy began rummaging through the man’s pockets, finding nothing more than a canteen. “Maybe. It would make sense, given the injuries. I’ve seen it before.”
I summoned my nerve and leaned forward, pointing. “If he fell,” I asked. “Then what the fuck did that?”
Turning the body over onto its side, Andy swore at the sight of a gaping wound on the side of the man’s neck, a ragged hole almost the size of a baseball that went all the way down to his spine. He paused for a moment, letting the corpse slump back into place. “Could’ve been a coyote or big cat or something that found him after he fell, decided they wanted a snack.”
“Stay focused, guys. It doesn’t matter whatever took a chunk out of him, we’ve still got a job to do.” Joey brought us all back to the moment. “Let’s move.”
We set off again, taking more careful steps this time. But some small part of my mind wouldn’t stay quiet even as I tried focusing on the mission. I knew predators. If they’d found that corpse, they wouldn’t have just taken a single bite. The body would have been ravaged. And there hadn’t been any other obvious bite marks. I forced those thoughts aside and got myself back into the game, the mountains beginning to wake with the chirping of birds and the soft howl of the wind.
Much to my relief the terrain began to level out slightly as we moved onto a ridge running around the mountain, though it was still rough going. Using trees to pull ourselves along and steady our pace, we had to pause more than once as the altitude and strenuous marching punished our lungs and legs. It was almost nine in the morning as Joey called for us to stop for another fiver. I found a spot to conceal myself in between two bushes, drinking deep from one of my canteens. That was when the first shots broke the morning quiet.
They were fairly distant, just muffled pops and cracks, but we all reached for our rifles and hurried into a perimeter, peering out into the forest. No one spoke as the gunfire continued in the distance, fading from a constant roar to just a few scattered shots here and there in the span of thirty seconds, and then silence. For another minute we simply laid there waiting for more, wondering if the next ones would rip over our heads, but none came.
Carlos reached up to key his radio. “TOC, Viper three. We’ve got gunfire near our position, do you have any air assets in the area that might be able to take a look?”
The reply came a few moments later. “Viper three, Toc, that’s negative on air, they’re all tied up. Are you in contact?”
Joey grumbled before keying up again. “Negative TOC, sounded like it was about a click out, not in our direction.”
“Copy that Viper three, stay safe. TOC out.”
“Well a lot of help that was.” Carlos grimaced. “Damn Air Force can’t spare one of their fancy drones to help us see what we’re walking into.”
“What, like you’re surprised?” Joey offered him a rare grin, clapping the larger man on the shoulder as he stood. “C’mon, let’s get moving. Eyes up.”
The next hour passed much like the last few had, quiet and still save for the occasional gust of biting wind or the chattering of forest animals. We didn’t hear any more shots, though we kept our weapons at the ready and paused every few moments to stop and listen for any signs of danger that might be coming our way. We began to ascend as the ridge turned into a long sloping valley leading up towards the side of the mountain, ending a few hundred feet below the summit. I tried not to let out an audible groan at the thought of climbing up that monster of a hill. But that complaint vanished as Joey suddenly held up his fist, taking a knee. “See that?” He said, pointing up towards the top of the valley. I squinted, reaching into my vest for a small set of binoculars and putting them to my eyes.
There, clear as day, was the entrance to a cave. It was small, little more than a black speck against the rocks and snow, but there nonetheless. But that wasn’t what made my heart skip a beat. Nestled between two large boulders near it sat a sandbagged machine gun nest, barrel pointed towards the sky. I frantically scanned the surrounding rocks and trees for any sign of enemy fighters. There was nothing. Joey took the binoculars to look for himself.
“Now that’s fucking weird.” He murmured, glaring up at the cave entrance. “These guys aren’t the sort to just leave a machine gun post exposed like that, and unmanned too. Any other day we would’ve been getting lit up by now.”
I nodded. Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters were experts in camouflage, and often used scouts to signal when we were coming within range of their guns. To find a machine gun completely unmanned and exposed was definitely not in the norm.
“So what’s the game plan?” I asked, scanning the hillside.
For a moment Joey sat in silence, glancing back at the rest of the squad before standing up. “Let’s at least go check it out. If nothing’s there we can always mark this place for the flyboys to drop a bomb later, make sure they can’t use it again.”
We began the arduous task of ascending the steep valley up towards the precipice, huffing for each breath and nearly having to crawl on hands and knees at some points. It was slow, painful going, all of us just hoping to reach the top before we passed out from exhaustion.
The entire squad froze as Joey halted and lifted his hand, before pointing off to a stand of trees about fifty yards ahead. A tuft of fabric sticking out from between the tree trunks, something wet coating the ground under it. I swallowed, lifting my rifle and starting to advance along with him. We closed the distance, and a few moments later the squad was kneeling in a semi-circle around the object with looks of grim fascination.
Another body, even more disfigured than the last. One of the man’s arms had been ripped or sheared off at the shoulder, his abdomen torn open as though he’d lost an argument with an angry lawnmower. Meat and bone lay exposed to the cold mountain air, blood coating the rocks around him in wide swathes. I tried to block out the look of abject terror frozen on his face as I leaned down to pick up the rifle at his feet, the barrel bent almost ninety degrees like it had been twisted in a vice. “Empty.” I murmured, holding up the magazine.
“Okay, what the fuck.” Thomas cursed, hefting his M240. “Something ain’t right here. This shit is weird.”
Joey and I exchanged glances. And for the first time since I’d known him I saw something strange in his eyes. It wasn’t fear, it wasn’t hesitation, it was confusion. Like he just couldn’t put the pieces together and figure out what was going on. He took a few slow, deep breaths before stepping back from the corpse. “Let’s keep moving.” He said, voice barely above a whisper.
We found more bodies the higher we ascended, scattered among the trees and rocks. Some looked as though they’d been in a car wreck, twisted and mangled in unnatural ways. Others were almost ripped apart, long slashes carved through their flesh or missing limbs. We found one impaled on a tree branch almost twenty feet off the ground. His blood was still dripping as we passed underneath. For the first time I began to hear the tinkling of shell casings underneath my feet, hundreds of them littering the ground near empty rifles and machine guns. Some of the weapons had been almost totally destroyed; barrels twisted or receivers crushed like a tin can.
I’d faced death plenty of times. Friends had bled to death in my arms. I’d watched men be vaporized in IED blasts. I had seen the life drain from men’s faces after I’d shot them, and seen what was left after bombs fell on their heads. I’d felt fear, of course; when bullets snapped by my ear or a mortar landed just a bit too close. But this was different. There, in that valley, I felt terror. Something deep down in my most basic of instincts was screaming at me to turn and run and never look back. This was a place of death, and I didn’t belong. But I forced those thoughts aside. The rest of the team was counting on me to do my job, and I expected the same from them.
We finally reached the machine gun nest, having passed at least a dozen disfigured bodies on the way up. I found the gunner himself, at least what was left of him, sprawled out in the snow behind the sandbags. He’d been torn almost completely in two. I suppressed the urge to gag and spun around as a voice called out.
“Joey, we got a live one!” Andy was gesturing frantically as he disappeared behind an improvised hut, nothing more than some tin propped up against a large boulder. We all rushed over to find him kneeling next to a man whimpering and crying, blood dripping down his chin while he tried to hold in his guts, which had spilled into his lap from a massive hole in his abdomen.
“Aaron!” Joey waved his hand, taking a knee next to the dying man. Aaron was our translator, and a good one. All the dialects in this area differed, but he had it figured out.
Jogging up to the scene, Aaron took a moment to gather himself before shuffling forward. He spoke softly, resting a hand on the man’s shoulder. They talked in hushed tones, the insurgent occasionally raising a shaking arm to point to the cave entrance. I could see the light starting to leave his eyes. I’d seen it plenty of times before. His words became softer and softer as his eyes shut, melting into incoherent murmurs before he slumped over, letting out one final breath.
“What’d he say? Did you ask him about the plutonium?” Joey asked, eyes hard as stone.
Aaron stood slowly. He was from Texas, with a bright smile and a seemingly perpetual tan. But at that moment he was as white as the snow around us, blinking a few times and shaking his head to clear it. “He, uh…” He cleared his throat, suddenly staring intently at the cave entrance just a few paces away. It was no bigger than the door on a conventional refrigerator, but the inky blackness inside might as well have been a portal to another dimension.
“He said that they brought the plutonium here, to make a bomb.” We all bristled, visibly tensing. “But he said it wasn’t to use on us.”
“What? That doesn’t make any fucking sense.” Thomas glanced down at the dead man, eyes wide.
Aaron continued. “He said that the tribal elders warned everyone about this place, to stay away, but his commander didn’t listen. They wanted this mountain as a scouting position and decided to set up a camp here. They were going to use the caves to hide from us, and that’s when…he said that’s when they ‘woke it’.”
“It? What’s ‘it’?” Joey scowled, breath fogging in the cold air.
“He said…okay, here’s the thing. Some of these tribes up here, they’ve been around a long time. Like…a really long time. We’re talking people who fought Alexander the Great. And they’ve got stories that go all the way back to before religion, before written language, before all of that. And some of these people believe that these mountains are sacred, and that there’s…something in them that wants to keep it that way. And when these guys showed up to set up camp…” Aaron gestured to the scene of carnage around us. “It got angry.”
Though it only lasted for a few seconds, the silence that fell seemed to last for hours. It was Joey who spoke first. “We’ve still got a mission. There’s a fuckload of plutonium inside that cave somewhere,” He pointed at the gap in the rocks. “And we’ve got to find it.”
“So…we’re just gonna ignore the whole thing about some mountain spirit fucking these guys up and go in there anyway?” Thomas asked, gesturing to the dead man at our feet. “I mean this with all the kindness in my heart, Joey, but that sounds like a stupid fuckin’ idea.”
“Look, we can’t say for certain what killed these guys.” Joey growled. “For all we know they ran into some opposing force, got ambushed, whatever. And frankly, I’m not going to stake this entire mission and a potential nuclear attack on the ramblings of a guy who was knocking on death’s door. You all know as well as I do that some of these people are superstitious as fuck. We’ve got a job to do, and we’re going to do it. I need four guys with me, the rest of you pull security.”
In the end there were no more arguments. Aaron, Andy, Carlos, and myself volunteered to go in. I checked my rifle one more time, making certain that there was a round in the pipe before flipping my NODs down and following Joey into the cave. My heart pounded like a jackhammer and the sweat felt like a cold hand on the back of my neck as we walked into the darkness, using the infrared illuminators on our rifles in conjunction with the night vision to light our way.
Whereas outside the wind and cool air helped to dampen the stench of death, inside the cave it was almost overpowering. I almost gagged, trying to breathe through my mouth, but the cloying odor forced its way into my nose and throat regardless. We moved in single file down the narrow path deeper and deeper, walking at a half-crouch to stop from banging our heads on the low ceiling. Our beams of infrared light, only visible through the night vision goggles, lit up the path ahead. It didn’t take long to find the first bodies, at least what was left of them. Mostly just scraps of clothing and streaks of gore staining the walls. Occasionally we found part of a torso, or a head, maybe some arms and legs. More than once I almost slipped in a pile of viscera and had to catch myself, taking in lungfuls of the damp, putrid air.
The corridor slowly began to widen until we were standing in a circular cavern with two more pathways forking off to either side. My heart sank with the thought of having to split the team, very much aware of the horror movie trope that we were walking into. That was until Joey tapped my shoulder, shining his IR beam on a wooden crate tucked against one wall. Even with the grainy view through my NVGs, it’s hard to miss a giant radiation warning symbol painted in bright yellow. I cautiously approached the box, slinging my rifle and taking off my pack. I could hear Joey and Carlos starting to set demolition charges to blow this place once we were finished. The hinges on the box creaked as I slowly opened it and I winced at the sound, staring at the contents inside. A metallic sphere, maybe as large as a grapefruit, nestled snugly inside a bed of foam.
Despite its uses, plutonium is actually perfectly safe to handle, even with your bare hands. The particles it emits won’t even penetrate your skin. It only becomes truly dangerous if you inhale or ingest the material. Or, you know, put it in a nuclear bomb. But that didn’t mean I was going to just throw it in my pocket and call it a day. Fishing around inside my pack I produced a finely woven cloth bag, to keep any potential dust or particulate contained. Slipping it inside the pouch and then stuffing the whole thing into my pack, I stood and turned, suddenly feeling as though my feet had been nailed to the floor.
I had seen a lot of arguably terrifying things during my time in the teams. Men blown to pieces, soldiers screaming for their mothers as they died, an enemy combatant charging at me with a bayonet intending to ram it into my stomach. You never “get used to it”, but some part of your brain starts learning how to handle that sensation of overwhelming fear and terror, how to push it aside and keep going in the moment, leaving that as yet another suitcase of emotional baggage to handle later on.
But out of all the things I’ve witnessed there wasn’t anything that could have prepared me for what met my gaze. My brain just short-circuited, refusing to accept what I was seeing as reality. I blinked once. Then twice. That thing was still there.
And that’s the only way I can think of to describe it; a thing. Not a man, not a beast, but something in between. Shaggy, matted fur hung from its hunched shoulders as it crouched on all fours. Unnaturally long limbs bent at odd angles. I could just barely make out the glint of foot-long, hooked claws, clattering softly against the stone every time it shifted its weight. Had it stood on all fours it would have been at least ten feet tall, though it sat hunched with all four of its freakishly long arms and legs. Some distant part of my brain realized that it wasn’t breathing; whenever it stopped it stood perfectly still. Not even the subtle rise and fall of breath. But all of that paled in comparison to the thing’s face. There was nothing there. Just an empty black void in the vague shape of a skull, or maybe a beak, or some awful creation of hellish sort. But there was one thing I could see for certain. Row after row of teeth glistening in the dark, dripping something onto the floor below it.
I don’t know how long I stood there. But finally, something snapped me out of the mind-searing reverie. It was Joey, hissing under his breath at me, one hand holding up his rifle to keep it leveled at that thing, the other clutching the detonation switch for the explosives they’d already laid. He dared not move, only flicking his eyes towards the corridor from where we came. I wanted to scream at him, are you fucking insane? But that seemed like a terrible idea considering the circumstances. However, it seemed like our only option. And so I took a single step, my boot squelching on what I could only assume to have once been part of someone’s digestive tract, now just a smear of gore on the rock.
The reaction was instantaneous. The creature braced itself against the wall with a series of jerky, snapping motions and let out a sound that will haunt me forever. It was the sound of a thousand men dying at once, a shriek that reverberated and echoed through the small chamber in wave after wave of pure hatred and contempt. I screamed in return, terror flooding through my veins like shards of ice. We were all screaming, but our voices may as well have been flecks of sand in a hurricane, drowned into nothingness by that roar.
I’m still not sure who shot first. I think Joey did, but it’s hard to say. In a space that small the gunfire should have been simply overwhelming, but I never heard it. I saw the flash from his muzzle spewing fire, soon joined by the other three, lighting up the cavern like a flashbang. And yet that thing seemed as if it were made of living shadow, cloaked in darkness save for its savage teeth. Carlos was yelling at me to run, to get out, reaching over to grab my arm. He was snatched out of the air right as his fingers touched my sleeve. I never saw that creature move but suddenly there it was, one set of claws hoisting him up by the throat as the others speared him through the abdomen, under his vest and coming out through his back with a spray of blood. Carlos let out a low keening noise, shaking and squirming and trying to bring up his rifle as that thing lifted him off the floor. He never got the chance. He was ripped in two, his legs slamming against one wall as the rest of him hit the other side with a wet slap.
I had just enough sanity left to flip the selector switch to fully automatic, bringing my rifle up and letting off a long burst as that creature lunged forward, swinging one of its appendages in a long sweeping arc. Aaron never stood a chance, collapsing to the floor as his head tumbled away. Andy only caught a glancing blow, but that was more than enough. One of those whistling claws caught him in the throat, the momentum from the impact hurling him into the wall with a sickening crunch of bones shattering.
Whatever coherent thought I had left evaporated. I was screaming, emptying the last of my magazine and starting to reach for another. The thing turned to face Joey and I, teeth gnashing and bloody claws scraping the floor. Once again it pounced, right as I slammed the magazine home and hit the bolt release. A burst of my rounds hit it right in the face, or at least where its face should have been. Sparks flew as bullets ricocheted off of its teeth, closing in right on top of me.
I was expecting the burning agony of claws sinking into my stomach or a sudden light-headed sensation as my head was separated from my shoulders, but instead I was knocked back off my feet, something heavy crashing into my chest. I skidded backwards, blinking away the sweat and blood stinging my eyes. Joey was lying crumpled against the wall, his vest torn away to reveal the four ragged holes in his abdomen where his ribs were peaking through. He gasped and sputtered for breath, blood forming a fine mist every time he coughed. The beast had turned on him and circled around for yet another strike. It looked between us both, teeth clicking like iron nails on granite.
Joey looked up from the ruin that was his torso, head bobbing back and forth. He still clutched his rifle in one hand, trying to bring it to bear. Our eyes met, only a few feet apart. Wheezing and gurgling, he lifted his left hand. The detonator was still in his grasp, and he flicked off the safety catch. He couldn’t speak, his throat filling with blood, but he managed to mouth one word.
I wasn’t even aware that I’d began to run until I was halfway down the corridor, the sound of gunfire roaring in my ears as Joey emptied the last of his magazine in one long burst. There was a second of deafening silence, louder than anything I could have imagined, and then a noise like a clap of thunder inside my own head. It was all around me, inside me, pushing and pulling on every fiber of my body. Something was shoving me out of the cave and towards daylight. Yet again some distant corner of my mind realized it was the pressure wave from the blast, and it might very well kill me, but I couldn’t process that. All I could feel was Joey’s hand on my back, pushing me forward and screaming “Go, go, go!”
Whatever it was threw me the last few feet out of the cave and into the searing light of day, landing with a thud and rolling the last few feet. Rocks and debris rained down on my head, and all I could do was curl into a ball and wait for it to end, choking on lungfuls of dust and sand. Pain had become my master in that moment; everything hurt. I could barely breathe, my head was screaming, all I knew was the searing ache shooting through every nerve ending in my body.
Time slowed down. Or sped up. I’m not really sure, adrenaline and shock are funny like that. But eventually reality began to take shape again, like I was crawling my way out of the mud and back onto dry land. Only when I felt something grabbing me did I truly come back all the way, kicking and punching and yelling, frantically reaching for the pistol on my belt. I was going to die with an empty magazine and blood on my hands.
Thomas slapped me. Hard. Hard enough to make my vision blur and my whole body go numb for a few seconds. Hard enough to finally pull me out of the stupor, blinking away the dust in my eyes and seeing his face staring at me from above, eyes wide and mouth agape. He was saying something but I couldn’t hear him, only the pounding of my heart and the rush of blood through my veins. He pointed frantically towards the cave and I managed to roll onto my side, fully expecting to see that thing crawling out to come kill us all.
Instead I was met with a beautiful and terrible sight. A pile of rubble now stood where the entrance had once been, clouds of dust and smoke still rising between the stones. Forcing myself to my knees, I stared slack-jawed and wide-eyed, simply unable to process the sight. And I stayed like that for what felt like hours, simply kneeling in the shattered rocks and trying to understand. It was only when Thomas grabbed my shoulder and shook me that I found enough cognizance to scrape myself together. We’re getting out, he was saying, extract is on the way.
The first sound I heard as my hearing returned was the distant thrum of helicopter blades as we made our way out of the canyon. It was joined by the ever-present, never ending moaning of the wind, carrying the sounds of dead men along the mountaintops.
You’ll probably never read the official debrief on Operation Condor. It’s classified, and probably will be for the next twenty years. Of course the military put out a press release which was even more watered down. It would tell you that Aaron, Andy, Carlos, and Joey died during a gunfight in a Taliban cave system in Northeast Afghanistan. They were all posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
We were all sworn to secrecy, of course. Most of the guys were happy to agree. They all wanted to forget. I did too, but I can’t. They know something happened in that cave, something horrific, but they don’t know the truth. And I don’t want them to. Nobody else needs that burden. I left the military as soon as my contract was up, and that’s why I’m telling this story now. Those government spooks and secret agents are going to do whatever it is they do to keep this under wraps, but somebody has to tell this story, and it may as well be me.
Because the truth has to come out. There’s a lot of things to be afraid of in Afghanistan. But one of them is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.