Mirwais' grandfather had learned to coax grape vines out of the rocks on a hillside near Mandisar. The harvest was never large, but unlike some other families in southeast Afghanistan, Mirwais had never known a season with nothing.
On his eighth birthday, the village imam came to tea with his father, and they summoned Mirwais.
"No need to be afraid," said the imam. "We have noticed your devotion to prayer, to following the laws of God."
We have decided, God willing," continued his father, "that you should learn to read, write, and understand the world. You will learn of science and the machines that can make our grape farm the most abundant in the valley."
They laid out a handsome new set of clothes the madras school had sent Mirwais as a welcoming present. The imam explained that the madras would be hard work, studying the Koran until Mirwais memorized every word, but he would no longer know hunger or cold.
Only his mother seemed less than happy with the glorious news. Mirwais assumed she was sad that he would be far away. He did not know of the conversation where his mother had asked her husband if he was sure this was what Allah wished for their son, to go to a school that would also train him to be a mujahideen.
"Is it not fitting," he asked her, "that our son should learn to defend Islam from its enemies? Mirwais will come back a learned man with a stipend who has defended our faith, God willing, or he will be a martyr looking down at us from heaven. Which of those would be worse than the life we could give him?"
Mirwais spent his childhood at a madras across the border in Pakistan. Three days of creaky buses over mountain passes separated him from his parents. They could visit him only on every other birthday.
He wrote them dutifully every day, collecting his scribblings into an envelope once a week to save postage.
Mirwais' mother noticed that as his dedication increased to Allah, so did his hate for the enemies of Islam. Mirwais traced much of the evil in the world to its source in Israel, and to their crusader ally, the United States. Whereas Mirwais had been willing to become a mujahideen to please his father, his letters reflected ever more his own passion to become one. It was no longer just for the stipend he would earn, it was to do the righteous work of Allah.
On his 17th birthday, the imam of the madras brought Mirwais the breathtaking news that he had been awaiting. He had been accepted into a Taliban training camp.
There, Mirwais learned to shoot and hide. He learned the tactics most effective against the Americans and their allies, the Afghans who had turned against Allah. But mostly, he learned of the brotherhood of his unit. They ate and prayed together. They became as one in spirit and purpose. He would do anything for them, and he knew they felt the same about him.
With the second melting of the snows, Mirwais' unit graduated the camp and made their way into his homeland. They moved by day when they could slip in with other travelers, their weapons hidden in their mule cart. They slept by night because that is when the Americans' eyes were the sharpest.
Mirwais' unit eventually linked up with another unit that had been wandering the foothills of Kandahar for over a year. The Wahid Unit took Mirwais' unit under their wing and planned their first attack together.
Overlooking a stone bridge over a river that was almost always dry lay an Afghan outpost. Sometimes soldiers came down from the outpost to check the papers of travelers crossing the bridge.
Mirwais' unit was to join the travelers in the morning of market day when there would be the usual delays crossing the narrow bridge. When they were directly below the outpost, they were to open fire up the hill at the soldiers.
Their mission would be to take out as many soldiers as possible, but more importantly, to dodge among the terrified travelers, and continue shooting at the soldiers for at least half an hour.
They were not to get close enough to the soldiers to sustain any casualties. They were not expected to accomplish much since this was their first battle.
Around a bend up the road, the Wahid Unit lay in ambush for the reinforcements that would be sent to the fort, hopefully with American advisors. That was to be the real battle.
As with most battles, few things went as planned. The Afghan soldiers had decided to set up a roadblock that day to check papers.
"What a fine turn of events," thought Mirwais. "This means we can get in close and kill some of the traitors, God willing."
But a hundred meters short of the roadblock, one of Mirwais' comrades slipped his rifle from the mule cart, perhaps to be ready. The nearby travelers saw it, suspected trouble, and dove for cover.
The Afghan soldiers saw the commotion and jumped into their armored personnel carriers (APC's). Mirwais and his unit opened fire. Bullets and APGs bounced off the APC's, and wounded civilians began to scream.
The APC's maneuvered closer for a shot, but Mirwais and his comrades were rabbits among the travelers.
"I'm hit," screamed his unit commander. Mirwais saw him by the side of the road, gripping a wrist that no longer had a hand. "Fall back," he yelled pointing with his beard toward the bend where the Wahid Unit lay.
Mirwais instantly obeyed, ducking behind a bus that was honking continuously and trying to go backward through the crowd. And then Mirwais tripped, not over something in his way, but because his left foot could no longer support him.
He looked at his sandals and saw bone and strands of flesh where his foot had been. There was no pain, but blood was everywhere.
He rose up on the butt of his rifle, but then came the silent punch in the gut that hurled him backwards into the bus. Bouncing forward, Mirwais fell into the mud formed by his own blood.
The instant he stopped, the pain caught up with him, both from his ankle and his stomach. He cried out to Allah the Merciful.
In a fetal position, Mirwais had the presence of mind to pull his sash from his cassock and tie it around the leg with the shattered ankle. The blood that had been squirting to the beat of his heart stopped.
Holding his stomach, Mirwais felt his intestines between his fingers, spilling out like hot pudding.
He thought of how the fine hairs on grape leaves formed large silver balls from a morning mist. Another wave of pain, and the world went dark.
One of the travellers saw Mirwais, yelled a garbled curse, and kicked him where he lay. Mirwais didn't mind. He was already dead.
Like many newcomers, Mariam worked hard to fit into her new home. Soon after arriving in the US, she changed her name to Mary to make it easier for the locals to pronounce. In her country, the way to fit in was to be meek and avoid attention. She buried the loneliness of a refugee without a family, and became a mouse, a very studious mouse. Mary embraced America as the land of opportunity and studied relentlessly to earn advanced degrees in physics and mathematics.
Mary avoided the parties common to her school mates and was still a virgin at 23. This had nothing to do with her Moslem background, which she had rejected upon arrival in America, and had everything to do with her introverted mission to become a productive member of the American work force. She wanted never to be sent back. What socializing Mary did, she did online. Whether on Facebook or playing video games, she went by Mike and pretended to be one of the guys.
With auburn hair flowing to her narrow hips, she learned to wear it in a bun to keep suitors away, and hid behind glasses she really didn't need. The breasts that protruded unexpectedly from someone as winsome as she, Mary learned to squash and hide behind lumpy cotton shirts. She didn't even own makeup.
After graduation, Mary bumped around the cubicles of various bureaucracies that let her play with the latest technology, but she often felt like a cast member of the Dilbert cartoons. Life improved when she landed at the greatest bureaucracy of them all, the federal government.
Tucked away with her research team within the WOF Project Group within the UAV branch within a department within an agency of the Department of Defense, Mary discovered a boss with a bottomless checkbook. Mary's requisition had only to contain the text "leading edge" and the toy arrived on her desk.
UAV stood for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, and Mary worked on what would replace unmanned military drones like the Predator. The Predator had evolved from spy planes the size of model airplanes into the size of a Cessna, but with a comprehensive sensor payload including radar, infrared, TV, and two more that she was not cleared to know.
Even by the early days of Iraq, the sensor payload and associated command and control systems had been miniaturized to the point that they took less than half the payload. That left room for weapons.
Predator missiles accounted for the surprise ending of many enemy tanks and fortifications. Its ability to lurk and strike without warning left the enemy only one defense, to mix with human shields.
The call for a reduction in collateral damage, the technical term for blowing up women and children along with the bad guys, launched Mary's Warhead on the Forehead (WOF) Project Group.
WOF developed a micro-missile only a few inches long. Tube launched, it left with enough speed to cruise a mile to its target. Less than half a second to impact, its tiny sensor picked up the infrared dot on its target, and its tiny thrusters adjusted course. That also added to its speed. A few dozen milliseconds from impact, the nose cone sensors and thrusters exploded harmlessly, leaving the payload tumbling.
The payload was a .223 round, equivalent to the ammo of the standard issue M16, complete even with unneeded rifling marks. For the recipient, and his forensic investigators, the result was the same as being shot by a garden-variety American soldier.
One small difference is that the "bullet" does not go through the recipient, as is common with high-powered rifles. The tumbling WOF payload dissipates its energy quickly on impact, leaving plenty of torn flesh and bones instead of a clean hole and a live bullet coming out the other side. The net effect is a dead terrorist, with human shields all around still in good shape.
With a miniaturized weapon and a miniaturized sensor system, the WOF group went back to an earlier UAV design the size of a propeller-driven model airplane. Modern capacitor-based batteries allowed the WOF to pass the night in flight from the charge of its solar panels. With its silent electric motor, the WOF was slow but able to lurk indefinitely, or until it ran out of ammo.
Mary designed the command and control system on a GPS overlay, primarily a joystick and a PC display from the various sensors aboard the WOF. She spent days and days sneaking the WOF around the scrub of the China Lake Test Range, mainly because it was such fun.
Mary added code that zoomed the display into the target with the projectile, just for the satisfaction of watching the kill up close. It became her favorite video game.
Everything worked beyond expectations until the beta test transitioned to moving targets. Keeping the infrared dot on the target became a difficult challenge, particularly hands and feet.. With practice, lots of practice, Mary could arrange it. She became a master at predicting the movements of her targets.
"The learning curve on this weapon is too long," announced Bernie, the Program Manager. "I don't have months and months to train an operator to be as good as you, often to learn that his reflexes will never make the grade."
Mary tried to write code that would anticipate human movement, but nothing came close to what she could do as the operator.
While writing the training simulations, Mary had one of the few Eureka moments of her life. She stormed into Bernie's office.
"A video game," panted Mary. "Let's turn WOF's command and control into a video game. My training simulation is halfway there. A point allocation system, and I'm done."
"And we put an arcade on the battlefield?" smirked Bernie.
"Across the internet," interrupted Mary, "Most simulation games go across the internet already."
"We're talking hundreds of WOFs in the air at any one time," said Bernie. "Where do we get that many gamers?"
"World of Warcraft has a million gamers at any one time. Some other games, even more."
"So we would contract a few of the players?"
"Better. We just make it a fun game, and they'll play for free."
"You wouldn't tell them," Bernie jumped up. "You wouldn't godamn tell 'em."
"Nope. They don't need to know us, and we don't need to know them."
"This would be an innovative approach to solving our training and recruiting problems," said Bernie easing back into his chair. "I'll kick it around with the Colonel."
The green light came quickly and enthusiastically. Mary brought in game specialists and she was promoted to lead a team of her own.
Their first realization was that the pixel-based data from the WOF's sensors wouldn't work across the internet. Refresh rates were too slow. Mary had to use algorithms available through the gaming industry to convert pixels into the vector-based shapes they outlined.
The cool thing was the door this opened. Once the dots representing a mujahideen were converted into the outlines of a mujahideen, Mary could instantly convert the mujahideen into any avatar she wanted through a library of overlays the user could select.
On the game display, the mujahideen could become gremlins, space aliens, medieval swordsmen, or virtually any humanoid selected. Each simulation would have its corresponding enemies, friendlies, and non-combatants.
Bernie and the Colonel got in on the scoring system design.
"A WOF carries only twelve projectiles," pointed out Bernie, "and at 30 mph, it'll take some WOF's a full day to return to base. Missed shots have to cost lots of points."
"Friendlies even more," interjected the Colonel.
"That shouldn't be much of a factor," replied Mary. "The GPS boundaries of all friendly bases are built into the fire suppression algorithms. When a WOF goes hot, its sensor feed is linked to WOF Command where we do situation awareness. We'll have our own guy with his thumb on the abort button throughout target acquisition."
"And the shot is blocked if the IR spot is on the wrong guy?" asked Bernie.
"Not exactly," said Mary. "Our guy does block the WOF's shot, but not in the game. In the game, the friendly or the civilian gets plinked. The gamer loses points and gets trained."
When word surfaced that the mujahideen were putting Kevlar under their shirts, the point system went from favoring torso shots to the extremities. Mary showed the WOF had advanced to the point that its projectile could arrive reliably on a forehead, just like the group's moniker, or even on a highly mobile hand.
Then came the word that foreheads were out, but that hands, feet, and genitals were in.
"The intel guys," Bernie confided to Mary over one of their late-night sessions. "These mujahideen sign up to get killed. They want to get their ticket punched to heaven, to get their 76 virgins. Much better than going back to the squalor of their villages. With the new point system, they go back to live out their miserable lives without a hand or foot, or as eunuchs."
Bernie saw Mary grow quieter than normal. Her eyes dropped and lost focus.
"Does this bother you," asked Bernie, "to be working on stuff like this?"
"No," Mary growled as she stood bolt upright. "It is what those fanatics deserve."
"The survivors may dissuade potential recruits," added Bernie, trying to be sympathetic to Mary's point of view.
"Those brutal monsters need to suffer," stammered Mary, her eyes wet with rage. "You have no idea what they are capable of."
Bernie put his arms around her to stop her from shaking, and Mary started to sob quietly on his shoulder, "They are animals. They are animals."
Bernie tightened his hug and found his lips pressed against Mary's neck. Without a conscious decision, he kissed her neck. He felt the warmth of her body and realized this was what he had wanted since the day Mary first arrived.
Mary pulled her head back, but kept Bernie's body pressed close. This was the first time she had been comforted in many years, and a flood of repressed yearning filled her. She slowly leaned forward, letting Bernie's lips touch her cheek.
Bernie tasted the salt of streaked tears and whispered, "My sweet little mouse. You must have been hurt bad by those guys in the old country."
Mary didn't want to talk about that, so she stopped his lips with hers.
Mary worked closely with Bernie after that, and they eventually contracted a private firm to license the government's technology to develop a new family of Skeeter games, or at least that is what every uncleared person called it.
Skeeters were mutant mosquitoes with laser beam eyes. They could shoot up to 12 times. The lasers would burn their targets only if they stayed on the target continuously for up to 3 seconds, depending on distance. The maximum WOF range just happened to last 3 flight seconds.
But Skeeter Sniper was only the last level of the game. Gamers first had to pass through the Skeeter Racer level where they learned to fly and race their skeeters. In the Skeeter Eyes level, they battled each other to quickly identify various shapes while they snapped between different views (radar, infrared, TV, etc).
Bernie and Mary were engaged to be married by the time their team became a full department with Mary promoted to lead it. They were surprised how fast hundreds of Skeeter Sniper clans popped up around the world. Many clan member scored over 1000 points per flight, which entitled them to download coupons to Pizza Hut and the iTunes store, or a free Skeeter hat.
"If we're going to get married," asked Bernie, "don't you think you should tell me about what happened?"
Mary knew Bernie was referring to her past, the one thing she never spoke of, not ever.
"Some things are best kept in the past," she answered.
"Do you think we should have secrets?"
Mary pulled Bernie's hand to her and kissed it. With her face buried in the back of his hand, she murmured, "I will tell you, but only you."
Bernie felt the cadence of her breath increase, and without looking up, Mary began, "When we were both young girls, my sister was raped by a man three times her age. The villagers found her bleeding between our grape vines and took her to a local doctor. Word got out and the rapist was brought before the village imam. The rapist had a long reputation as a family man who went to the mosque every day, and whose efforts in support of the Taliban were well known. The council decided that he must be blameless."
Mary paused, steeling herself for the words that had to follow, "But with a crime like that, someone had to pay. They decided that my sister had committed adultery. While she could barely stand from her injuries, they leaned her against a wall and threw stones at her until she died. They made all of us watch, as a warning."
"Do you know how long it takes for someone to die that way?" Mary whimpered into Bernie's hand. "She was only 15 years old."
Since most 14-year-olds were half a foot taller, Choocha had to put up with his nickname. Choocha meant "shorty" in his village in Afghanistan. Choocha planned to take another stab at losing his nickname as soon as his voice would change, which he hoped for every day.
Choocha played soccer and enjoyed making farting noises with his buddies, but more than anything, Choocha liked video games.
The cafe on the road to Kandahar had three PCs donated by an American aid group. Choocha's father said he saw no use for them on his grape farm, but Choocha would bicycle 3 miles after school every day to sit in front of whichever PC he could.
There, his nickname on several video games was NightRaptor12, and no one talked about his growth spurt that was still to come.
Choocha prayed every day and went to the mosque on Friday with his family, but his heart was not there. The moment he closed his eyes, he was NightRaptor12 piloting his Skeeter close enough to the tops of trees to touch their leaves.
He dreamed of flying miles above the lights of villages shrouded in evening fog, as slow as a balloon, following a river of moonlight atop clouds.
His father sometimes complained of Choocha's lack of devotion to Allah, that Choocha loved the things of the world too much to be close to his own soul. He prayed that Choocha would grow up to be more like his older brother Mirwais, and not like the two daughters he never spoke of.
Choocha tried to think religious thoughts whenever he could, but once he progressed to Skeeter Sniper level, his elation knew no bounds. He went on to win tournaments and tried to be online as a clan every Friday afternoon.
After hearing a tirade about the American occupiers dropping bombs on anyone they didn't like, Choocha decided to do his part. On his next game of Skeeter Sniper, he selected the enemy to be US Green Berets.
The game control map showed his odds would grow if he loitered near an encampment of the mujahideen overlooking a stone bridge. Swapping his display to infrared, Choocha scanned for muzzle flashes and waited for the Green Berets to attack. Choocha didn't expect much, but he knew he would pick up 20 points just by loitering above the mujahideen, and his instincts told him this was the kind of place where something might happen.
The Green Berets popped out among the travellers on the road to the bridge and attacked an encampment of the mujahideen. Using innocent travellers as human shields, the underhanded Green Berets maneuvered for better shots at the mujahideen. Choocha flipped to TV to watch the body movements of the Green Berets. One of them stood out somehow. An inner voice told Choocha this one was the boss, the one giving orders.
"Double points," thought Choocha.
He recognized a pattern to the dodging between the civilians. Choocha suddenly felt rather than knew where the Green Beret would pop up next. He maneuvered his skeeter into position.
The Green Beret held his rifle in his left hand. That made his left hand move slower than his right. Choocha brought up his cross-hairs and zoomed in. He put the laser on the target's left wrist and squeezed the trigger to start the clock. During two long seconds, Choocha followed the wrist.
400 points rang up for NightRaptor12, and the fun wasn't over.
Zooming back out, Choocha noticed the Green Beret he had wounded was gesturing in a particular direction. Following his instincts, the line of gesturing brought Choocha to another Green Beret, crouching near a bus.
"He's going to attack the bus," thought Choocha. "Bonus points if I stop that."
The Green Beret started walking. The regularity of those steps brought instant recognition. Choocha would know where the target's foot would be next. In an instant, Choocha pulled the trigger to start the clock and lit his laser where the ankle would touch down. As the Green Beret shifted his weight to it, Choocha knew it would stay for the two seconds he needed.
300 more points and Choocha thought, "This is getting easier."
Perhaps because he was getting overconfident, perhaps because he wanted to do something funny to brag about later, Choocha went for the highest points, a crotch shot.
The Green Beret was down so Choocha figured it would be easy. But just as he had his sight zoomed, the Green Beret refused to stay down. He pulled himself up with his rifle.
Choocha had not yet learned to control his temper, so he put the laser on the annoying soldier's crotch and pulled the trigger anyway.
At that instant, the Green Beret hesitated, struggling for a foothold with his one working ankle.
Choocha realized he had read the body language wrong, and he watched helplessly as the laser spot drifted up the dropping torso.
His counter jumped 600 points, and for a second, Choocha beat his record for highest points in one flight, but he knew it wouldn't last.
The game calculated the laser was above the crotch area at the instant of impact, and the penalty dragged his counter down 400 points.
"Could have been worse," texted one of Choocha's clan buddies. "If he had jumped up, you would have missed entirely and the penalty would have been 900 points."
"Yes," answered Choocha. "It was still fun."
Copyright © 2014 Peter Shikli