He sat on the edge of his cot, rifling through the papers that had been collecting in the small corner of the hooch he used as an office. Reports, maps, dossiers, printed emails… worthless – all of it. As he worked through a drawer full of folders, only glancing at one after another before adding the contents to a growing pile, he paused on a rather thin one and pulled out the few papers that were inside. These he would keep, nothing else. Setting them aside, he grabbed the rest in single motion and threw them down on the discard pile without inspecting the contents. He felt an intense desire to burn the few he’d held back, but they were necessary until he had processed out of country. He looked again at the pile of discarded work and picked up a memorandum peaking out of the folder on top. He held it up, staring at it briefly before crushing it in one hand with all the violence and malice he could muster, his forearm and fist trembling with the exertion.
“Major Harwood,” SSgt Meyers said, standing on her tip-toes so she could just peak over the cubical wall.
“Yeah?” Jim asked without looking away from the report he was desperately trying to finish before calling it a day. He had been staying late for the last week in order to wrap this project up. It was his first formal product since checking into the unit, and he wanted it to make a good impression. The thought of it hanging over his head for a three-day weekend was too much to bear, so it had to be done this afternoon. He had also promised Leslie that he was hers for the full three days, starting with dinner at her favorite restaurant later that night.
“The Colonel needs to see you.”
“Coming,” he said, saving his work and simultaneously standing and stretching his back. “I probably need to step away from this for a minute anyway.”
He followed her to the Colonel’s office. The boss, standing in the doorway waiting, motioned for him to enter and gently pushed the door shut with his foot after they had both crossed the threshold. The grim look on the Colonel’s face didn’t bode well for Jim, but racking his brain didn’t result in anything that could explain this unusual interview.
“I debated holding off until after the weekend,” the Colonel started, “but I think you’ll need all the time you can manage.”
Jim stared blankly, trying to figure out what on earth he’d need the weekend for that could possibly involve the boss. All he could manage was a quizzical “Sir?”
“You’ve been tapped for a short-notice deployment. Came down this afternoon.”
Jim felt the weight of every book, plaque, trinket, piece of furniture, and other movable object in the office come crushing down on his heart and lungs. He’d been non-deployable for years due to the nature of his previous assignments, and knew that he was due. However, he had hoped for a bit more than the minimum 45 days on-station prescribed by policy. They’d only just found and moved into a rental that Friday and boxes were still stacked everywhere waiting to be unpacked.
“You’ve got two weeks until you need to report for pre-deployment training,” the Colonel said as he handed Jim a manila folder that apparently contained information about the deployment. “Don’t bother with any more work here. Get going with outprocessing and spend the rest of the time with your family.”
“Yes sir. I’ll start making arrangements,” was all the reply he could muster.
He turned and left the office, walked back to his desk and flipped through the paperwork. Checklists, training requirements and dates, and a letter from the CENTCOM J3. As was his custom, he glanced at the letter in it’s entirety looking for anything significant in the structure. Immediately a few features caught his eye. First, it was a scan of another document. The general had personally lined through the traditional introductory “Major Harwood” and written “Dear Jim” in ink above it. This kind of personal touch was usually reserved for congratulatory notes on birthdays and such. It was also wet-signed in blue ink and dated by hand with the same pen only the day prior. This was a rather marked deviation from the much more ubiquitous and impersonal digital signature the DoD had been adopting for everything.
This whole thing felt funny. As far as he’d ever seen, deployment taskings didn’t come in a manila folder, generally requested a generic capability instead of targeting any specific individual, and weren’t lavished with personal attention from one of the busiest generals in the DoD. He turned back to the papers that described the scheduled training and started scanning the familiar format looking for the few bits of real information buried in bureaucratic formality. Defensive driving, two different urban combat and small-team tactics schools, three months at DLI learning Arabic, SERE training. This list was significant and disturbing given his background and the associated role guys like him typically played in a combat environment.
Having completed this exercise, he returned to the letter and read through its contents carefully. It described an experimental program designed to break down Al Qaida by embedding analysts like him with special operations teams. It was supposed to shorten the analysis timelines and get inside the enemy’s OODA-loop – there was a term he hadn’t heard in a while… “Observe, Oreint, Decide, Act.” Whoever wrote this was clearly somewhat long in the tooth. Boyd’s work hadn’t been all that popular in military culture for years. In fact, the last time he’d seen that term he was still in ROTC. This brain-child may actually have come from the general himself.
He had been individually selected for this assignment, the note said, because of his experience and demonstrated prowess at tracking and analyzing the clan structure and tribal alliances in the specific region where he was being assigned. That meant Iraq, almost certainly Al Anbar, and probably Ramadi. There weren’t any worse places at the moment. If there was going to be a major firefight and significant casualties on any given day, the odds were pretty good it would be there.
He had spent the last five years since 9/11 becoming the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top expert on the people of that region, and had made a name for himself almost by accident. He was supposed to be a Korea expert when he checked into his unit, but there wasn’t much new to do on that front so he’d branched out to keep himself entertained. When the Pentagon began seriously prepping for the invasion he had been asked to present some of his analysis to a small group. One of those in the room at the time owned the signature on this letter. He’d been specifically tasked, by name, by someone almost nobody could refuse.
While this information explained why the Boss hadn’t tried to reclama and keep him home a little longer, it really didn’t make him feel any better. He was going to leave his wife and daughter to fend for themselves for almost six months of training followed by another six months of deployment. The previous year had left them all fragile, and now, when things had finally begun to settle down, he would be leaving them alone in a new city far away from friends, family, and help. Why couldn’t they have at least told him before they moved? He could have left them in Virginia where they had a functioning support network.
The extensive list of pre-deployment training was highly unusual too. Staff weenies working in Qatar or even Baghdad and Ramadi didn’t need that kind of training. He briefly toyed with the idea of hiding the nature of the deployment from Leslie under the formalism offered him by the “data masked” location, but he quickly put that thought aside. He knew she needed to know the full truth, and would find out eventually regardless. However, knowing he had to tell her wasn’t enough to guide him on how to do it. How could he break this kind of news to her given what they’d just been through? He dropped the folder on his desk and walked dejectedly out of the office.
Surveying the pile of paper, he realized that everything he’d been working on for the last four months existed digitally now. Paper was pointless. Even in digital form, he was convinced, its value was questionable. Yet these white ghosts bleeding with black and blue ink had been piling up since he got here. White ghosts were his business, but he had come to realize that they were absolutely irrelevant. He grabbed the whole stack and walked it outside to the already lit burn barrel and threw it in. As the papers on the outside layer charred and began curling in the flames, he caught sight of one paper underneath he hadn’t intended to include. It was a simple sheet of copy paper, but instead of toner from the printer or ink from his pen it was decorated with crayon.
In a silent panic, he plunged his hand into the barrel and retrieved the errant piece of paper, dropped it on the ground, and quickly but carefully pushed sand over it with the toe of his boot to extinguish the flames that were curling the blackened edges. Retrieving the paper from the sand, he looked at the damaged artwork and raged within himself over his lack of attention and the near loss of so precious an artifact.
“Hey Boss, we’re done unloading. Mail came in too.”
“Anything interesting?” Leslie had told him she had sent a care package a few weeks ago, but he’d almost given up on ever getting it. Deliveries to these small outposts could be erratic at times.
“Not for me, but looks like yours is here,” he said, tossing the package to Jim before ducking out to let him open it alone.
He paused for a few moments, looking closely at the curved and neat handwriting on the label. He sniffed the box, hoping without reason to smell something other than the world around him. Having completed these rituals, he pulled a pocket knife and carefully sliced through the packing tape. He set the knife down and gently unfolded the cardboard flaps to expose the inside. On the top of the open box sat an envelope that was decorated with large hand-drawn and lop-sided hearts and addressed in purple crayon by an unmistakable and very young hand. He’d start there. He again picked up the knife and inserted its blade into the envelope, cutting a clean slice down its spine. As he lifted the enclosed paper free of its wrapper, a ridiculous amount of red, sliver, and pink glitter spilled out, covering both his uniform and the floor of his hooch.
Shrugging off the almost impossible to clean up mess, he turned to the letter. The team would never let him live down the glitter no matter how hard he tried to clean it off, so why bother? On the front of the paper was a highly embellished stick figure unicorn, what looked like a smiling dog – probably their German shepherd Lola – and several brightly colored butterflies framing a few words written in a rainbow mixture of crayons – “Dad, I love you. Please don’t die.”
He initially grinned at the simplicity of a six year old, then turned the paper over to read the few lines penned much more neatly on the back. “The magic of the unicorn is supposed to keep you safe, and Lola is there to protect you. The butterflies are just because they’re pretty.” Before looking at the rest of the package contents, he walked to the wall of his hooch and hung the paper proudly on the wall. Standing there looking at his new protectors, it sank in just how much was contained in that simple picture. Sammie was worried. She knew he was in danger, and didn’t know how else to express it other than to call on the only magic she understood. How do you console a child who barely knows how to share their grief and anxiety? Plumbing his feelings and experiences, he came up dry; so he turned to Leslie’s letter hoping for something else to brighten his day.
His hands trembling with a mixture of eagerness and fear, he opened the envelope and began to read. In the opening passages Leslie included the traditional declarations of love and longing. It always made Jim smile to read these. She was a marvelous woman, and he missed her intensely. She then addressed typical business items like doctors appointments, activities at church, and news from family members. His spirits started to droop as he realized what wasn’t included. It didn’t look like it would be included. He read on hoping he was wrong until coming to the end without satisfaction. She had said nothing about how she was doing. Nothing about how she was adapting. Nothing about how she felt beyond wanting him to return home safely. The nothing spoke volumes.
Jim looked at the pile of uniforms and other stuff now piled on his cot, contemplating just stuffing them randomly into the duffel bag instead of neatly folding and organizing them. They all would be trashed when he got home anyway, and he wasn’t all that sure why it made sense to drag them that far. None of that mattered, though. After briefly stuffing a few items haphazardly into the bag, he reversed course and decided it would be easier to get everything in if it were neatly done. He then emptied the bag and mechanically folded and packed each item.
Fumbling blindly in the desk drawer near his cot, he pulled out his padlock, folded each of the grommets around bag’s opening over the metal fastening loop, and latched the lock through the loop to keep it all together. That was the last of the packing. He stood slowly and stepped back to contemplate the result. The strip of duct tape inscribed with his last name in permanent marker was still there from the last time he had packed this particular bag months ago. In fact, if it weren’t for wear and tear on the contents, he wasn’t sure there would be a distinguishable difference between this bag and the one he carried when he left home.
“Major, welcome to COP Nowhere!” CW2 Warwick shouted over the roar of the rotor wash and turbine noise as he picked up the decidedly new duffel Jim had kicked out of the helicopter. Jim had been able to see Warwick as they approached the landing zone right up to the point where the open door was filled with flying dust. Warwick had been standing with his M4 hanging vertically in the center of his chest from a sling, his bare arms folded across his chest and the palm of one gloved hand resting on the butt of his rifle. He was positioned just off to the side of the improvised helipad with goggles covering his eyes and the remainder of his face covered by a tan and black Keffiyeh. Jim wasn’t sure how the pilot had any idea what was below or around him, even less idea how Warwick had been able to see enough to approach the helicopter. It made him nervous to ever get back into a helicopter in this barren desert. Somehow Warwick had navigated through that dust, and he was at the door by the time things settled enough to see more than a few inches.
“Mr. Warwick, good to be here,” Jim lied.
“I go by Warlock. You’ll find everyone here uses a call sign. You’ll earn one too, soon enough…”
The two stepped to the side, silently acknowledging that any further conversation would be best suited for after the delivery bird left. Immediately, a crew of six men from the outpost rushed to the helicopter, forming a bucket brigade and quickly unloading the weekly supplies along with Jim’s gear. Within five minutes, everything was piled up a few meters away and covered with a tarp.
“Sir, you might want to turn around before he powers up,” Warwick shouted when the crew was done unloading. “You don’t have the right kind of protection on, and it wouldn’t do to evac you on your first day because you got sand in your eyes.”
Jim turned around, and right on queue the pilot powered up. Sand with characteristics identical to materials ranging from talcum powder to pea gravel began to pelt him from every direction, completely filling every exposed bodily orifice almost instantly. He instinctively buried his head in his arms and took a knee with his back to the now quickly rising helicopter in an effort to protect himself. Then, as the rotor wash faded away, Jim stood and turned to watch the green shape climb to altitude and turn back to the main base, abandoning him in this hell-hole far from all comforts and most help.
He looked around the hooch, scanning for anything he had forgotten… anything he actually wanted or was required to return. His bags were packed and had already been loaded on one of the trucks, but he couldn’t quite convince himself he wasn’t leaving something behind. He looked under and behind the few pieces of furniture. Nothing. There wasn’t really anywhere else to look, but he kept scanning back and forth trying to be sure.
“Sir,” Killroy said, sticking his head in the door and grabbing the duffel, “let me take this to the truck.”
“Oh… yeah,” Jim said, “Thanks.” He hadn’t heard the normally boisterous hothead approach. Either he hadn’t been listening or Killroy was being uncharacteristically quiet. He turned and followed the young Sergeant as he walked over to where the convoy trucks were staged.
As they were crossing the compound an explosion shook the area immediately outside the sand-filled barrier directly across from them. This was followed by a dull thud from off in the distance to their left. A mortar, apparently, fired from somewhere relatively close. Neither man reacted much, but continued what they were doing as if they were completely oblivious to the sound other than a sideways glance at each other and a slightly raised eyebrow from Killroy.
With a half-grin, Killroy silently counted backwards from five on his fingers. Before he had folded the last finger into a fist, there was a short whistle and a much louder thud – counter-battery fire from the artillery unit nearby. Five more followed in quick succession. For the life of him, Jim couldn’t figure out why anyone would lob a mortar anywhere near the FOB. The futility of doing something you knew was likely to result in your corpse being picked up with a vacuum or a spatula (if at all) didn’t seem to register for the seemingly infinite supply of gullible young men who had been manipulated into believing it was Allah’s will that they be liquefied by the US Army. What a waste.
“This round’s only worth a chuckle,” Killroy said matter-of-factly.
“Par for the course,” Jim answered flatly. “Hopefully today’s comedy doesn’t make the old’un break out into a full laugh again until after we make it back inside the wire.”
Killroy nodded agreement and shifted his course towards the trucks.
“Tell the drivers I’ll be ready in a few,” Jim said as he turned towards the ready room. He had a few things to do before they could depart. Killroy nodded, but didn’t say anything.
“Dinner’s ready,” Mutt sang out as he walked through the ready room tossing MREs out of the case in his hands, each one landing expertly in front of whoever it was intended for.
One by one, the team slit open the heavy plastic envelope of food and started inspecting the contents. Jim’s was a ham and egg omelet, his least favorite. In fact, that particular menu item was so despised that nobody even bothered asking for a trade when they got stuck with it. You just knew that whoever drew that particular honor was stuck with it. About the best you could hope for was that someone would be kind enough to donate an extra ration of Tobasco to cover the flavor. You couldn’t do anything about the texture except warm it up, and that was rarely worth the work. Maybe he’d do without the main entré tonight and satisfy himself with the crackers and other such stuff.
Suddenly a crashing, whizzing sound tore through the air, followed immediately by the bang of an explosion. A mortar had landed just outside and shrapnel had torn through one wall, shattered one of the fluorescent light fixtures, and stuck in an opposite wall. Jim dove to the ground and covered his head with his arms, waiting for further impacts. He heard additional thuds of distant explosions, then silence. Nothing else came near. After what felt like an eternity of quiet, he peeked out from under his arms to see the entire team still sitting or standing upright and watching him silently.
“If you hear it,” Warlock said calmly, walking to the wall and using the pommel of his knife to knock a two inch piece of hot jagged metal loose, “it’s nothing to worry about.”
“They never lob more than one at a time,” someone called Monkey added, “because that would take the odds of surviving the payback from bad to zero.”
“Finish your food,” Warlock directed to the room in general before turning back to concentrate on eating his own.
“Sir,” K9 said with a light touch on his shoulder. Staff Sergeant Kelnhoffer was a mountain of a man who could fill a room without saying anything, and when his physical presence combined with his voice it tested any safety margins engineers may have put into the walls and ceiling. But here he was gentle in a way that might have stirred ideas of a giant silver-back gorilla caring for one its young. Might have, that is, if anyone had been aware enough to notice. Jim wasn’t. He barely stirred at the touch while staring blankly at the doorway in the opposite wall. The doorway that opened up to the outside. The doorway through which he would walk for the last time in just a few minutes.
“Gear’s on the truck except this,” K9 continued, gesturing to the pile of battle rattle belonging to the boss. “Convoy’s all geared up and ready to roll. Killroy, Cooter, and I will be going with you as far as the green zone to set up logistics for the swap-out. We’ll come back on the supply bird tomorrow if they can get airborne. Otherwise, another convoy is scheduled to COP Grant in a few days and the guys here can come pick us up there.” All he got in acknowledgment was a nod.
“SPC Maples,” Jim started, extending his hand for a handshake.
“Everyone here just calls me Mutt, sir,” he interrupted. “It makes it easier.”
“Alright, Mutt, got a minute to show me around?”
“Not much to show, sir,” Mutt offered by way of explanation. “You seen pretty much everything already walking across the vehicle yard. We do pretty much everything here in the ready room and some of the hooches. Follow me, and I’ll show you yours. Some of the team are already unloading your gear into it. They built up the buildings about a month ago and took down the tents, so there’s at least that… the tents were a real bitch. Didn’t even try to keep the sand out, not to mention the scorpions.”
Mutt turned to go out the door with his new boss in tow, but didn’t make it far.
“Have a plan to kill everyone you meet,” Jim said aloud as he read the hand-painted four inch tall blazing red letters above the door.
“Borrowed that one from Mad Dog Mattis,” Mutt explained proudly. “Not sure who actually painted it though. Used to have a sign when we were in tents, but pretty sure one of the Red Horse team building the palace here lifted it when we weren’t lookin.”
“Seems a little harsh,” Jim said mostly to himself, but loudly enough Mutt felt the need to explain further.
“Nah,” he said with a shrug as he shouldered through the door into the blistering heat and blinding sun, “we steal stuff from them all the time. I guess it was only fair.”
Jim peeled his eyes away from the door. How many times had he crossed under those words, rifle in hand and weighed down with gear, on his way to pick through and analyze the shattered remnants of someone else’s life. It’s funny, he thought to himself, how quickly the people whose things he picked over became something less than human. They were objectives. One objective led to three or four more. Those objectives, dealt with according to custom, generally led to more. That’s how the game was played. Played on a giant chess board that used to be a large province. Played only with pawns, and under control of kings and queens who were far from the action.
Jim stood and walked over to where a large laminated map was hanging from some nails driven into the plywood walls. This map had been pristine when he had first hung it here. Now it was almost completely covered in red or black exes, many of them clustered closely together in a few hot-spots. It didn’t look much like a chessboard, but then again, the rules they played by didn’t look much like chess.
“You got a bunch of them, didn’t you?” CW2 Lowry, Warlock’s replacement, said quietly. He had come in unnoticed and was standing just behind and slightly to his right.
Lowry, who went by Cooter, had come in early when Warwick had been evacuated. He was originally scheduled to come in with a complete team to replace the COP’s veterans in just under a month. The powers that be, noticing the high success rate of this small outpost, opted to use the excuse to enable a longer hand-off period and sent the new team lead in early.
“Doesn’t matter, though, does it Cooter?”
“What do you mean? You took down all those bad guys. That matters,” Cooter said trying to sound encouraging.
“Yes. I suppose it does,” Jim said tiredly, “but I’m pretty sure we created almost as many as we got rid of. Maybe more. Such a waste.”
“They keep makin ’em, we’ll keep takin ’em,” Cooter said, trying to be helpful. He had only arrived on station a month ago, and didn’t seem to understand what Jim meant.
“I’m glad you understand it that way. The team needs that,” Jim said with a sense of finality in is voice.
“They told me the other day that your replacement washed out of training. Got hurt.”
“I was planning on having a few months at least for you to train me. Now I lose even that,” Cooter said sorrowfully.
Jim struggled within himself to keep from telling the new guy how selfish and irrelevant that point was given the circumstances. It’s not like things here had turned out like he’d planned. In fact, if he’d been given the choice of going home under the current conditions or staying here, he’d have stayed here until hell froze over. He made a conscious effort to unclench his fists and stretched out his arm, placing the tip of his index finger on a single red ex piled on top of four black ones. “This was the first,” he said, but didn’t say more.
Warwick had the newly printed and laminated map spread on the table in front of them. On the map were a series of grease pencil marks indicating both the objective and planned ingress and egress routes.
“Another team over in Ramadi id’d this one a few hours ago. They called in saying it promised to be honey hole,” Warwick said with a grin.
“Don’t get too excited Warlock,” Jim said, struggling to suppress a yawn. He’d only fallen asleep an hour ago, and the mission wasn’t real enough yet for adrenaline to compensate. “Do we know anything else about it?”
“Not much, sir. The area has been pretty quiet. Word from Brigade is that patrols have only encountered the occasional pot-shot. Should be a pretty good place to get your feet wet.”
“You worried about me?”
“Sir, no offense, sir,” Warwick said bluntly, “but you’ve already got three strikes against you. First, you’re not an operator. I’ve never seen one of your type who couldn’t get into serious trouble when surrounded by a squad of my brothers.”
“Your team is anything but ordinary from what I understand, and I know enough to not let my ego get in the way of you doing your job. I’m here to take advantage of what your team can provide… not to run your team.”
“You might not actively try, but it’ll take time for you to make good on that promise. Besides, you’re still a Major,” he said somewhat apologetically and with a hint of warning in his voice. “Second,” Warlock continued, “you’re intel. There ain’t any desks or power point slides out where we go.”
Jim grimaced, but didn’t say anything.
“And third, you’re Air Force. If the Army does a bad job training management for this kind of work, I have serious doubts about anyone else doing better. Three weeks of pre-deployment training ain’t going to count for squat out here.”
Jim wanted to be angry, but this was exactly the kind of open feedback he’d told Warwick he expected. Experienced operators like him tended to overlook many of the traditional customs and courtesies in favor of avoiding an untimely death, and it wouldn’t really change anything to tell him the training had been more like six months when all was said and done. It didn’t hurt his decision calculus that his survival depended pretty directly on Warwick. A flat “thanks for the vote of confidence,” was all the reply Jim offered.
“Well, sir, keep your eyes open, mouth shut, and ears tuned-in when we’re outside the wire and you’ll do fine. Should we call in the crew and get ’em spun up?”
“Yeah. We need to get on this one before word gets out and the cleanup crew arrives.”
Warwick stepped out of the ready room to rally everyone, leaving him alone with his thoughts. Warwick was crusty. He’d been here four months for this tour, and already had four other tours in this god-forsaken country under his belt. He knew what he was doing, and had long ago lost the ability to be political or polite when it came to getting a job done and coming out alive. There was no way to misinterpret anything that ever crossed his mind or lips. He knew Warwick meant what he said in the kindest possible way, but it stung a little to admit that he was almost certainly the biggest liability on the mission.
Aside from the quick tour by Mutt, he hadn’t had much time with any of the team other than Warwick who seemed somewhat irritated at having to relinquish his position – especially to an outsider. That said, Warwick had dutifully handed over the reigns and provided an exhaustive in-brief earlier in the day. He couldn’t help but wonder how many of the anxious looks he had been intercepting from the team, especially the more experienced ones, were due to their distrust of how he would handle himself in a firefight. Moments later, Warwick returned with the full team who all circled the map, focusing intensely on the objective and instantly beginning their individual analysis of the situation as Warwick briefed them on the details.
Jim shook himself, blinking his eyes hard to pull his focus free, and looked wearily at the pile of dirty body armor and other battle rattle on the table. He wasn’t all that convinced it would be worth the work to button up. Would it be all that bad, he thought to himself, to just get it over with quickly if something went wrong?
He checked himself. He’d told himself over and over again not to let those kinds of thoughts creep back into his mind, but his success rate seemed to strongly favor his unseen opponent. It was a tenacious beast that had been growing stronger for a while now, and had made a habit of rearing its unwelcome and ugly head more and more frequently.
He picked up the plate carrier and held it out at arms-length from him. It’s familiar smell made him nauseous. Months of sweat, sand, dust, dirt, blood, and all the other contaminants endemic to a destroyed city in a war zone permeated everything in spite of vigorous attempts to clean it all off. No matter how hard he scrubbed, some of the stains were still there, visible or not. All the scrubbing had done was to wear the fabric covers threadbare in spots. A few in particular seemed to have been indelibly marked against any means of removal.
“Wolfpack one, wolfpack two,” the radio crackled in his ear. It had felt like an eternity since they had gone in. Hearing Warlock call him without having heard gunfire was an inexpressible relief. It meant they had been a nasty surprise rather than encountering one.
“One,” he answered tersely.
“Objective secure. Come work your magic.”
“Copy. Headed in.”
“All clear, sir,” the gunner in the turret called down. “Entrance is three meters, right side. Can’t miss it.”
Jim grabbed his rifle and ducked out of the truck with two more of his team and an interpreter close behind, leaving the drivers and gunners in the four trucks behind in case the team needed to make a hasty egress. Somewhere just out of sight there were half a dozen of his men who had been the first out of the trucks when they had halted. He couldn’t see any of them, but was infinitely glad they were there.
The door to the building, what was left of it at least, was leaning haphazardly against the shattered door jamb. Apparently the breaching team had opted for shaped charges on the hinges and latch instead of just kicking it in. As he looked at the splintered wood, he couldn’t help but wonder if it had even been locked. This thought didn’t last long, however. There was a mission to accomplish, and it had nothing to do with the door. He entered the small dark space, scanning it through the still uncomfortable green glow of night vision goggles. It was empty except for his two protectors. He stepped forward into the darkness, but a dull pain in his chest made him realize he had been holding his breath. He consciously started to take a slow, deep, breath, but the pungent residue of explosives hanging in the air seemed to sear his lungs and triggered an involuntary cough.
“Don’t worry about that sir. You’ll get used to it,” the young soldier in front of him said as he deliberately worked his way forward into a long narrow hallway, checking each connected room as he went. “I kinda like it now. Smells like work.”
“Don’t listen to him, sir,” countered the other soldier keeping watch behind them as they moved forward, “Monkey just likes blowing stuff up. I still hate that smell.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Jim grunted. He didn’t like having to search through the labyrinth of rooms in this unusually large building, it was making him uncomfortable. He keyed the mic on his radio, “Wolfpack two, wolfpack one.”
“We’re in, but don’t see you,”
“Last door, up the stairs. Building’s clear.”
The three moved swiftly to where the rest of the team was waiting. A dim light from an infra-red glow-stick cast grotesque shadows into the corners and over the faces of everyone there. The entry team was spread around the room with two watching out the windows, two watching the door, and two more towering over a collection of hooded and flexi-cuffed people.
“Warlock, can we get some light in here?” he asked. Watching the world through NVGs was disorienting, and with the combination of anxiety and sleep deprivation he was near enough to puking without adding anything else. They needed to come off.
“Monkey, find a light,” Warwick commanded.
A moment later the light from a single bare and dim light bulb completely washed out his NVGs. He flipped them up out of the way and scanned the room with his natural eyes. He wouldn’t have believed it possible, but the green scene in his NVGs was less disturbing than the shadows and darkness he saw all around him. Against one wall was a low table stacked with a jumble of large plastic containers and seemingly random scientific equipment. Against the opposite wall were a number of sleeping mats with blankets randomly scattered around. Apparently the captives had been asleep prior to the team’s arrival – just like planned. Other than these features, the room was barren.
There was nothing hanging from the mud brick walls. Nothing covering the rough planking of the floor. Nothing but the single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what the place had originally been intended for. Perhaps some kind of apartment building, or maybe a feeble attempt at an office building back before the city had descended into chaos. Whatever it had been, it wasn’t that anymore. Like everything else he had seen, it had first been stripped of anything useful, then co-opted into the fight.
Jim moved over to the chemistry set and poured over its contents. It was just a simple IED factory. Nothing sexy. The intel must have been over-played. The smell of diesel and nitrate fertilizer hanging in the air was all the evidence he needed to know what this crew had been up to.
“Grab everything with wires that isn’t already attached to a container. Leave those ones to Warlock,” Jim commanded. “Keep your eyes peeled for shaped charges, or even plain copper discs. Anything paper goes too. Keep your gloves on, and bag everything so we don’t lose any finger prints.”
“What about all the chemicals?” Gomer asked.
“Just fuel and fertilizer. Nothing to worry about unless we get stupid, and not much we’ll learn about them we can’t get from the photos.” Jim paused here and thought for a moment.
“Monkey,” he continued, “this place needs to have an industrial accident when we leave. We can’t haul all this crap with us, and we can’t leave it here. Make sure the place is empty and torch it off.”
Immediately, two of the team started photographing the workbench and methodically collecting the items he had asked for, while Monkey went down to the trucks to collect what he needed for the fireworks show.
“Alright, let’s see who our little chemists are,” Jim said to nobody in particular. He moved to the nearest one and pulled off the hood. A pair of terrified looking brown eyes looked back up at him. She couldn’t have been more than twelve. Maybe fourteen if she was of the petite persuasion.
The interpreter stepped to Jim’s shoulder, ready to be of use.
“Ask her what clan,” Jim commanded. The interpreter complied, and Jim stood silently watching while the translator worked.
“She says she was brought here from Yemen as a laborer, and that she doesn’t know anyone locally. She says the ties binding her hands are hurting badly begs you to loosen them.”
“Go ahead and loosen them,” Jim said. The interpreter immediately moved to comply.
Warwick, who had been working over the chemistry set, stopped what he was doing, turned, and just managed to bark a loud “Sir!” when the girl leaped up with a knife in hand that she had apparently been hiding under her long black dress. She lunged at Jim, but Gomer, who had been down on one knee a few feet away inspecting what looked like a remote-control module, turned instinctively when Warlock shouted, raised his rifle, and released a three round burst. At least one of the rounds caught the girl in the back just below the last rib on her left side. It exploded out of her right side just below the breast, leaving a gaping hole and splattering both the wall and Jim with bits of blood and lung. She dropped the knife and collapsed on the floor within a foot of Jim’s feet. Bright pink foam was starting to leak from the corners of her mouth and from the exit wound as she tried to speak.
“She prays,” the interpreter said matter-of-factly, wrinkling his nose at the smell of fresh blood that was beginning to mingle with the smell of burnt gunpowder. All Jim heard was the ringing in his ears and the beating of his heart, but he understood what the interpreter meant.
“What the fuck did you do that for?” Warwick screamed loud enough that it pierced through the ringing. A stream of uninterrupted profanity and reprimands for being an incompetent desk pilot son of a bitch officer filled most of the next several minutes while the rest of the team methodically identified and photographed the rest of the prisoners and collected evidence. “The next time you even think about risking my team like that Gomer’ll let the little whore cut you! Nobody here is innocent! You get that! NOBODY! We find a six year old kid in a place like this, they’re a killer no different than Haji Abdulla, and we treat them accordingly.”
“The old man is laughing again,” Gomer said to himself, but loud enough that Jim heard. It didn’t make any sense. Neither he nor Warwick were laughing, and there weren’t any men over twenty among the captives.
Jim looked down at those brown eyes as they rolled uncontrolled in the young woman’s head. Most of her internal organs had been devastated by the tumbling bullet, but it still took several minutes before she stopped struggling to breathe. The metallic taste of blood filled his mouth and nose, and he could feel the progress of a drip of sticky hot liquid as gravity slowly pulled it down his forehead. The nausea got the better of him, and he involuntarily puked all over the dying girl.
Jim retched as he pulled on the vest. It had been an involuntary part of the routine for months, and he couldn’t wait to turn the awful equipment back in to supply and be rid of it forever. Thankfully, nothing came up; a consequence of his not having eaten that morning or even the night before. He wasn’t going to go back into the world of men covered in vomit.
He plopped the Kevlar bucket on his head and adjusted the magazine holders and other gear. All told, the load added up to almost sixty pounds, and it had felt oppressively heavy when he first arrived here. However, it was just a matter of course now, and felt about like a heavy blanket draped over him. About the only part of him that registered the weight were a few bulging discs in his back, and he had gotten good at ignoring them with the help of large doses of Ibuprofen. The doctors would probably give him a hard time at his next physical, and his kidneys might never work the same again, but at least he had been able to function.
As he finished the ritual buttoning up, he felt an irrational desire to burn every piece of clothing and equipment he had on. He wanted to watch the flames purify it of all that had been absorbed from this putrid place. But the rules were the rules. He had to wear it for the convoy and turn in everything but the uniforms at his home station. He would definitely burn the uniforms though.