“Fuck, Cap,” shouted 1st Lieutenant Ray Carlson. “They must have hit the fuel tank, we gotta set her down.”
“It’s too hot!” Captain Amanda Klazinski shouted back. “This area’s crawling with hostiles. I gotta get us into a green zone.”
“There’s not enough fuel! We’ve got about five minutes and then we’re going down.”
“If we land here we’re hostages or we’re dead anyway,” answered the Captain. “I’m gonna take us over that ridge and have the marines para out of here.”
“We’re not high enough for jumpers!” shouted Carlson.
“Listen, Lieutenant,” she said, emphasizing his rank. “We were sent out on SAR, and we’re not landing in a hot-zone so someone else has to be sent out after us. I’m going up and over that ridge, we’re getting these marines out of the bird, and then I’ll make as soft a landing as I can, hooah?”
“Hooah, Captain,” said Carlson.
“Good,” said Amanda, “now call back and tell the marines to get ‘chutes on.”
She pulled the helicopter up and turned, knowing the other side of the ridge would give the marines the best chance to escape and evade back to friendly territory. She straightened out as best she could with the slightly damaged fin propeller and started the ascent. Three minutes later they cleared the ridge and they were plenty high enough.
“Ray, get those jarheads jumping!” she shouted into her headset.
She looked back and the marines were hopping out of the helicopter, one after the other.
“Is that all of them?” Amanda shouted after another minute, desperately trying to keep the helicopter flying straight.
“The last one just jumped!” shouted Carlson “That’s everyone.”
“Not everyone,” said Amanda, “get yourself out of here.”
“No way, Captain,” said the lieutenant. “I’ll take the bird down, you need to jump.”
“Goddamnit, Ray!” she shouted. “Get your ass down with those marines and get back to base!”
“But Captain I-” he started, but Amanda cut him off.
“That’s a fucking order, Lieutenant!” she shouted. “Get your ass off my bird!”
He looked at her for a moment, watching her fight the controls. Then he saluted.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and began to get his parachute on.
“Good luck Amanda,” he said, saluting one more time. Then he jumped.
“Thanks, Ray,” she whispered, and turned the bird hard and started a rapid descent. She pulled the sticks up to level out when she heard the motor start to sputter, trying to level out to slow the chopper. She might have a chance if she could just…
The engine sputtered a few more times, and then, for just a moment, everything was silent and still.
“Fuck! Come on, baby, start spinning!” shouted Amanda as the bird began to fall. The propeller blades were sputtering, trying to spin again. She pulled up desperately on the control stick. It wasn’t working. She saw the desert landscape rushing at her, then the sky, then the desert again as the helicopter spiraled downward. She started to get sick from the spinning. It was so fast now. She felt herself getting light-headed.
“Oh shit oh shit oh shit,” was the last thing she said before she passed out.
Amanda opened her eyes and immediately closed them again against the glaring sun. She blinked a few times and finally was able to keep them squinted open. She was lying on her back with her feet above her. She was still in her flight seat. She unbuckled the restraints and rolled onto the desert sand.
“What the hell?” she said as she stood up. She felt fine. She didn’t even have a headache. She checked her arms and legs for blood. Nothing.
“What the hell?” she said again. She turned and looked behind her. About forty yards away was the pile of twisted metal that used to be her helicopter, half buried in the sand. There were pieces of it strewn around her, some further back, and more and more around the wreckage, as if it was made of Legos and the blocks came apart when it crashed.
Amanda wasn’t even sore.
She checked her radio, and it appeared to be okay. She turned it on and tried to raise the base, but nothing happened.
“Goddamnit,” she said. She checked her holster and found that she still had her sidearm. Then she checked the rest of her equipment. Her tactical knife was there. Her binoculars were there, unbroken. She had a couple spare magazines, and a canteen.
“Thank God for the canteen,” she said to herself. Then she walked to the wreckage to see if she could find anything useful. It was a mess. The twisted metal of the fuselage was broken and sharp in so many places that she didn’t want to get near it. The cockpit was smashed to nothing. If she would have been in there, there wouldn’t have been enough left of her to identify. She was pretty sure the helicopter’s transponder was smashed to bits. She cursed and took out her compass. She knew she needed to go southeast, but had no idea of the exact heading. She couldn’t call for help, and so she started walking.
Her path took her to the foot of some giant hills, which there was no way in hell she was climbing, so she had to follow the base of the hills. This took her further south. It was hot as hell and the sun was getting higher, but for some reason the heat wasn’t bothering her at all. She took a drink from her canteen to make sure she wouldn’t get dehydrated and kept walking.
Up ahead a little ways, the hills either ended or turned back to the east, and she was hopeful that she could get back on the right track to base. She wondered vaguely, as she rounded the side of the hill, if she would see Carlson and the marines in the distance, making their way back the same as her. Hopefully she could catch up in time if they were getting exfiltrated.
As she came around the edge of the hill, she didn’t see anything in the distance, but what she did see was a river. It was flowing out of the hills and down toward the southeast. It looked like she could follow it to exactly where she needed to go. The only problem was there wasn’t a river anywhere near the base.
“And,” she said to herself, “I didn’t fly over any river getting here. What the hell?”
She saw a little mud hut on the river bank, and next to it was…
“Ho-ly shit,” said Amanda. There was a boat beached right on the riverbank. She made her way toward the hut and drew her pistol, but kept it at her side. She covered the distance quickly, looking around to make sure no one was there to surprise her. All she saw was the brown hills rising up out of the beige sand of the hot Afghan desert. There was some green along the river, but she saw no one.
Amanda approached the hut, which had a wood-plank door and a window on the back. She would have to play this right. She didn’t want to hurt anyone, but she needed that ferry. She ran up and stood with her back to the wall, next to the door. She held the pistol in one hand and then took a deep breath. She rapped on the door with her free hand three times.
“Hello,” she called, “Anyone home?”
“Hello,” came a voice from inside. It was a woman’s voice.
“You speak English?” she yelled back.
“I speak English,” answered the voice. It was an American accent.
“Is anyone else in there?” Amanda called, her apprehension beginning to wane.
“Just me,” said the voice. “You are American?”
“I’m a pilot out of Shindand Base,” Amanda answered, “my chopper crashed a few miles back. I need to get back to base.”
“I can help you,” said the voice. “Can you lower your weapon so that I may come out?”
“Sure,” said Amanda, who was still alert, but certainly less nervous. She backed away from the door, lowering her sidearm, but holding it in both hands, ready to aim if she needed to.
The door opened, and Amanda almost lifted her gun in panic. The person who emerged was tall. Amanda was pretty short, only 5’4”, but she didn’t get intimidated easily. She had taken up Judo in high school, and by now she was a black-belt. She was used to throwing six-foot tall guys around. But the woman who emerged from the hut was at least a foot taller than Amanda, wearing a black burqa that covered her entire body, including her face. She checked her reaction when she saw that the woman’s hands were outstretched, showing that they were empty, and Amanda let out a breath.
“Damn, you’re tall,” she said before she could stop herself.
“I am,” was all the woman said. Amanda looked the woman over.
She pegged the woman at six feet, six inches. Easily the tallest woman Amanda had ever seen. She was covered head to toe in her burqa, and on her hands were delicate black gloves. She was obviously very slim, from the way the robes fell, and she moved with a graceful stride that immediately made Amanda jealous.
“My name is Khatera Anahta,” said the woman.
“Kareta An…” Amanda tried, and failed.
“You may call me Karen,” said the woman, “if my name is difficult for you.”
She wasn’t sure how, but Amanda could tell she was smiling when she said that, like there was some kind of joke.
“Captain Amanda Klazinski, U.S. Army,” Amanda said, and held out her hand. The woman, Karen, didn’t take it.
“I mean no offense,” said Karen. “It’s just…”
“I get it,” said Amanda, waving her hand, “it’s good to meet you. You say you can take me to the base?”
“I can take you where you need to go,” said Karen, nodding and waving toward the ferry. “Do you have payment?”
“Payment, umm…” Amanda fished into one of her pockets. She pulled out two coins, each worth two Afghani. “Will these work?” she asked as she held them out. Again, she could sense the woman smiling at a joke.
“Those will work perfectly,” answered Karen, who reached out her hand, palm up. Amanda dropped the two coins into her hand. Karen pulled her hand back, and it disappeared into the folds of her burqa, and Amanda heard the two coins fall on others. Karen turned and began walking in that graceful step, almost gliding down to the ferry. Amanda followed.
“Permission to come aboard?” asked Amanda, smiling at her own joke. Karen nodded and Amanda stepped on. As she did, the river surged gently just as Karen pushed away from the shore with her paddle. The boat began to glide gently down the river. The boat was low-slung and oval shaped, about three feet wide, eight feet long and about two feet deep. There was one crossbeam to sit on, with the prow and stern raised up. Amanda stood awkwardly, holding on to the stern tip as Karen stood at the prow with her paddle in her hand, occasionally dipping it to keep the boat straight. As far as Amanda could tell, it was in the dead center of the river.
Karen broke the silence after a few minutes. “Please sit,” she said, “you must be weary, after walking so far.”
“Thanks,” said Amanda, taking a seat, “but actually I’m not tired at all. It’s weird, I usually hate road marches.”
Karen didn’t respond.
“So how do you speak English so well?” Amanda asked after an awkward pause.
“I have known many Americans,” said Karen.
“A lot of Americans come to this river?” asked Amanda, confused.
“Yes,” answered Karen.
“So what river is this? I don’t remember flying over it,” said Amanda. “I was actually really surprised when I came to it.”
“Here it is called ‘al-Barzakh’, though it has other names,” answered Karen.
“Barzakh,” said Karen. “I’ve heard that before… It means barrier, right?”
“Yes,” answered Karen.
They drifted down in silence for a while. The river cut deeper between two sets of hills, so that there were tall hills on both banks, and nowhere to land. The sun began to set and Amanda’s thoughts returned to the crash.
How the hell had she gotten out of that alive? The cockpit was smashed and there was no reason for her to get thrown out like she did. She was glad she blacked out for the crash, but she wished she knew how she escaped. She was glad everyone else was able to get off at least.
“You didn’t happen to see any other Americans before me, did you?” Amanda asked. “A group of nine men?”
“None of them came the way you did,” answered Karen.
“I hope they make it back to base,” Amanda muttered.
“I’m sure that they are safe.”
“Why do you say that?” asked Amanda, sharply.
“They did not come the same way you did.”
“What does that mean?”
“Simply that they did not come this way,” said Karen. “They had their radios, did they not? And they were together?”
“Yes…” said Amanda.
“I am sure that they are fine, and that they are on their way to your base.”
Amanda thought about that, and decided Karen was right, even if she was being weird about it.
“Your friends,” Karen asked, after a long pause, “how were they not on your helicopter when it crashed, while you were?”
“They parachuted out,” answered Amanda. “We’d been hit a few times, and I kept the bird in the air long enough for them to get off.”
“But not yourself?”
“I didn’t have time,” said Amanda. “I had to keep us in the air long enough for the others to get out.”
“A Hero, then,” said Karen, “interesting.”
The sunlight disappeared and Amanda looked around. Some dark clouds had moved in front of the sun. Amanda looked ahead and noticed a fork in the river. She hadn’t seen it at all before, like it had just sprung up, but it could have been a trick of the light. She peered at it. There was a hill jutting out of the water, at first a jagged ridge, but behind that it just looked like the rest of the hills in the area. Karen stuck the paddle in the water on the starboard side, and the ship turned toward the fork on the right.
“I wouldn’t say ‘hero,’” said Amanda, after a long pause. “I was just doing my job.”
“No reason to be modest on this river,” said Karen.
“What does that mean?” said Amanda. “You keep saying weird shit like that.”
Karen didn’t respond. Amanda looked out and saw that the fork was getting closer, but was still well in the distance. The jagged ridge that came out of the water, though… it looked strange. She took out her binoculars to look closer. When she was able to focus, her stomach felt like it had been punched, and her insides turned to ice. Her jaw dropped.
What she had thought was a jagged edge jutting out of the water wasn’t jagged at all. It was ornately carved, and huge. She took in the detail through the binoculars. One huge paw was carved into the rock just at the waterline, so that it rested there, and the other reached out with claws extended. The paws were part of a huge canine body that split into three heads, snarling with teeth bared. One was looking straight ahead, and the other two at the approaches on either side. Amanda had seen that dog before. Her hand was shaking as the binoculars came away from her face.
“That’s…” she heard herself say, “that’s…”
“Beautiful,” she heard Karen say from a long way off, “isn’t he?”
The clouds above rumbled. It was getting dark.
“Wh-what the hell is this?”
“I believe,” said Karen, slowly, “that you already know the answer to that question.”
The river seemed to be getting louder. Amanda clenched her fists. She felt cold, hypnotized. She had to get control. The sky rumbled again, and the noise of the water was turning into a dull roar in her ears. She looked down at the river. It looked like it was flowing much too fast for the speed of the boat. It rippled and formed into strange shapes before they washed past. She clenched her fists tighter.
“I’m not ready for this,” she said, less shakily this time.
“That is irrelevant,” said Karen, still looking ahead. Her calm tone grated on Amanda’s already stretched nerves. “You are here,” Karen continued, “and soon we will reach our destination.”
Amanda looked up quickly. The massive carving was much closer. Much closer than it should have been. It was even bigger than she had thought looking at it a moment ago. At this distance, it towered above the river enough that Amanda had to look up to see the top, its bared teeth menacing. But the threatening image had a strange effect on Amanda. She didn’t feel fear or awe. She felt what she always felt when there was a threat ahead. She felt anger.
She stood up from her seat and faced Karen, lips tight and brow knitted into her Mission Face. Karen was still facing forward, away from Amanda.
“Stop the boat,” she said sternly.
“The boat will not stop,” said Karen with the same maddening calm, not looking back. Now Amanda was getting pissed. She moved her hand to her holster and pulled out her army-issue M9 Beretta semi-automatic sidearm pistol. She leveled it at Karen.
“Stop this goddamned boat, right the fuck now,” She said. She hadn’t spoken loudly, but there was enough iron in her voice that Karen finally raised the paddle and turned to look at Amanda. They stared at each other for a long moment until a flash of light and clap of thunder that Amanda felt deep in her chest broke the silence.
“There is no stopping the boat,” said Karen after the echo of the thunder disappeared. “There is nothing to be done. You are here, now, you have no choice in the matter.”
“No choice?” shouted Amanda. “No choice? Then why am I even here? Why the fuck didn’t I just wake up there?” she gestured ahead with the gun. She glanced up and could make out the outline of the hound’s head, even closer now.
“You said the answer yourself,” said Karen, “this is the barrier. The path. The river is full of those who could not make it.” Karen waved a hand toward the water as spoke.
Amanda looked down at the water. She could tell it was roiling and much more wild than it had been, but could make out nothing until another flash of lightning. As the thunder shook inside her chest, she saw that every splash took the shape of a hand reaching out of the water, before splashing down and becoming one with the river again.
“Do you now see?” said Karen. “There is no choice but to continue on. Is it not now clear?”
As Karen spoke, the sky flared yet again, and Amanda’s body jerked as she felt the thunder in her chest. She looked at Karen, nearly invisible in her black robes, silhouetted against the night. She looked at the dark, terrible river. She looked and saw that they were just a few yards away from the massive, hellish statue.
“There’s got to be a choice,” she said quietly, and pulled the trigger three times.
Karen didn’t even move. They stood there for a moment, neither one moving. The roar of the river filled Amanda’s ears until something much higher pitched rang through the din. Karen was laughing. High-pitched, shrill laughter cut through the noise, full of malice and scorn. A bolt of lightning scythed across the sky just as Karen’s arm shot out and grabbed the gun from Amanda’s hand. Amanda didn’t have time to even think, but over a decade of training reacted for her.
Amanda spun in toward the arm, grabbing a handful of robe on the way, using the momentum of the spin to pull. Even though Karen had a skeletally thin frame, Amanda felt the weight of thousands of years on the robed figure. But in Judo, weight doesn’t matter. Amanda could toss a 250 pound man six feet with a clean hip-throw. Karen went less than two, but the boat was narrow.
Karen’s feet hit the water, and thousands of hands reached out of the river and grasped at her, pulling with all their wretched, despairing might. The sky flashed with lightning directly above the boat, outlining the hellhound’s head, nearly directly above, and the thunder, this time, made Amanda jerk so hard that she fell to her knees, stunned. Karen was climbing back into the boat, hindered only by the ghoulish hands pulling at her robes. They weren’t enough. Karen was back in the boat, moving gracefully and hatefully toward Amanda.
“This is the end,” growled Karen, “I told you, there are no more choices here.”
Amanda was still stunned. Her entire body ached. There was a burning sensation in her chest that she had never felt before. She looked up, and Karen was reaching out toward her. She clenched her teeth. If this was the end, she would go down fighting. That was her choice.
There was another flash of light, and another thunderclap. Amanda screamed as the sound tore through her body, rocking her with pain and knocking her backward. She fell back, and everything went black before she landed.
Amanda felt pain like she had never felt before, all through her body. Her legs hurt, her arms hurt, she felt like her stomach was ripped open and her chest was on fire and her head was going to explode. This must be hell, she thought.
“Captain…” she heard from a long way off. “Captain? Amanda?”
Ray’s voice? Why is Ray’s voice…
She tried to open her eyes. She could only open them into slits. It was bright, with some blurry figures standing over her.
“Holy shit, she’s alive!” a voice said above her.
“Get those electrodes off her,” someone else said.
“You’re gonna make it, ma’am,” she heard Ray’s voice say, “if you just keep fighting, you’re gonna make it.”
Matthew Black works in a box by day, but at night he breaks out to write stories, usually involving ninjas or flamethrowers, or both. He was born in Savannah, Georgia, but currently lives in Indiana, a place famous for both corn and boredom. He has a serious addiction to buying more books than he’ll ever have time to read, saying stupid things on twitter, and drinking copious amounts of coffee (seriously, these are problems, send help). He has been writing short fiction for five years and is currently writing his first novel, which doesn’t help his coffee addiction. You can find some of his short fiction and some blog posts about the soul-ripping process of novel writing at AlphaMargaritas.