Thursday, June 2, 2011

Chapter Four

Dayr Az Zawr, Syria

Lt. Col Mike Hickey lay on his back glaring at the robin’s egg sky crisscrossed with white contrails. His radio operator lay beside him facing forward hugging the hardscrabble rock and dirt of the Syrian high plateau overlooking a field of chickpeas below. Mike and the three men with him were a long range reconnaissance team that infiltrated the border 2 nights ago and were now bedded down across from this crossroads town watching one specific farmhouse. Normally, CENTCOM did not send recon teams led by someone as senior. That told Mike volumes how serious this was. After two days of this existence, his body also told him why this was not normal – he thought ‘I am too old for this shit!’ In addition to Nick Constance, his radio op, Mike had his scout-sniper, Dan Edwards, and his senior Non-Com, Gunny Rodriguez. 

Their desert “digital” camouflage blended well with the landscape augmented by the netting and landscaping they performed on their arrival night. Mike scanned the sky for the Dragon Eye drone he knew was there but failed to see it. Nick controlled the Dragon eye with a special lap top. They had launched it with rubber bands off the bluff a half hour earlier in an operation that reminded Mike of when he was a kid playing with model planes.

Shaking his head he rolled over ever so quietly so as to not disturb the rocky soil beneath him. Recon Marines are a tough breed able to stay put for days with scarce a move. Still, sitting on top of this bluff in their cover and concealment called on every bit of training that Mike and his Marines had ever received. It was mid fall – a time of year when temperatures soared during the day and fell like a brick at night.

The muffled Pave Hawk helicopter that had inserted them across the border from Iraq 2 days ago had dropped them 3 klicks southwest of the crossroads. Humping their equipment across the hardscrabble landscape had worked up a sweat in the cold night air. Now, however, lying supine with only the thinnest of ground covers to shield them from the deck they all dreaded the coming onset of the cold night. Mike watched as each Marine laid out his NVGs, short for night vision goggles, in front of them. As they each, separately, made their preparations twilight began to fall. Arid smoke from the farmhouse wafted their way with the faintest smell of spice mixed in.

They had been tasked to watch a suspicious set of buildings on the fringe of the farm. Large sheds had been erected three months prior and had been observed to have large box trucks enter heavily laden and leave visibly lighter. In addition large amounts of water were observed though satellite imagery to flow to this inauspicious corner of the world where water was extremely scarce. Thinking back on his briefing and instructions Mike remembered the puzzled looks on the Intel types as they briefed him on what to expect. Crossing a border militarily was not something they undertook saving for the direst of situations so he knew from the onset that the proverbial excrement had met the fan. One guy, who sat in the back for most of the meeting, suddenly jumped to his feet in the meeting and had approached Mike with a jabbing finger “Colonel, I don’t have any fucking idea what’s in that shed. And not knowing makes me more nervous than Jesse Jackson at a Klan rally!” Most people who jabbed a finger at Mike pulled away a bloody stump but that night Mike simply starred back.

Laughing to himself Mike brought his attention back to the farm as a distant motorized sound entered his consciousness. Scanning the horizon with the last vestige of light he thought he could make out a large truck moving their way. Signing to Gunny Rodriguez he mimicked “what’s with?” Gunny slipped in beside Nick and stared at the laptops screen. Observing the screen that relayed the picture from the Dragon eyes infrared camera the Gunny turned back to Mike and pantomimed and mouthed ‘two trucks and one car coming this way pretty fucking fast!’

They watched as the trucks entered the small compound and through the quickly opening and closing sliding doors of the large metal building. Turning to Nick, his radio operator, Mike made a sign that indicated to Nick to send a prearranged signal. Nick quietly punched a preset code and pressed send which caused his gear to send a short burst to a geosynchronous satellite 24,000 miles into space and be bounced back to Tampa Florida and Qatar simultaneously – each headquarters for CENTCOM and Special Forces Command. Gunny was busy using a large telescopic lens to snap high resolution digital photos. Dan kept his eyes peeled towards their rear through his night scope.

Investigate Closer came back the flash message on their console. Shit! thought Mike. Well, about time I earned my pay he thought as he sidled over to the Gunny. Leaning next to his Kevlar helmet Mike whispered “they want us up close and personal” as Gunny eyed him in return. Stirring, Gunny made ready to go when Mike laid his hand on the Gunny’s forearm. “You cover my six” he said to the surprised Senior Non Com and giving him a hard look shook off the Gunny’s protest.

“Edwards, on me.” he mouthed to his sniper. Turning back to the Gunny he mouthed and hand signaled to him “be ready to get our asses outta Dodge!” and then slinging his M-4 slid back down the hill with Edwards to back track to the scarp that was the steep side of the plateau they had been encamped on. Sliding down the steep hardscrabble each of the men were glad for elbow and knee pads now standard issue for working in this alien environment. Reaching the bottom after their quiet descent they gathered themselves, took their bearing and began to make a large loop around the plateau to approach the farm from the east.

Night had fallen quickly and the stars provided just enough light for their NVGs to glow green with the images of the landscape as they carefully picked their way across the fields. Thankfully the moon was waning to new. Stepping across an irrigation ditch Mike held his hand up giving Edwards a pause. Each quietly descended to one knee 75 meters away from the closest out building. A sound hummed lowly from the building as they watched with cold intent. Light seeped out a slight crack of the door casting a bright glare in their NVGs and blinding them to what was happening inside.

Casting a hand signal to Edwards to stay Mike quietly stooped up and sprinted half way across the chickpea field to its edge where he hit the deck in a soft cloud of topsoil. Raising his NVGs and waiting for his eyes to adjust Mike glared at the crack in the door. Suddenly the door opened as Mike quickly ducked his head into the ground burying his face from the light. Slowly he raised his eyes as he watched two men standing outside lighting cigarettes. Good, thought Mike, their smokes will give him some shield having cost them each their night vision.

Peering past the two men, whom he now realized each had Kalashnikovs slung across their shoulders, he watched as several men operated an overhead winch hung from the center beam. The noise he had heard was a winch motor groaning under obvious heavy strain. Three large containers that looked similar to 55 gallon drums were positioned at the back end of the box truck with considerable effort. Straining his eyes for all he could see Mike detected Cyrillic lettering on the drums. As the next to last drum was winched back, Mike saw something that caused him to suck in his breath. A symbol on the underside of the drum flashed quickly across the doorway but its meaning was unforgettable.

Laying his head down for the briefest of moments Mike cursed a blue streak beneath his breath then looked back up as he heard the voices inside get louder. The men outside quickly tossed their cigarettes away and went back inside on what seemed like a loud order from within. Waiting one second to double check himself he looked back up and made his decision. He grasped his mike on the front of his tactical vest and clicked the mike button three times – a private signal to the Gunny to close in on his position stat!

Slowly he backed across the field to where Edwards was keeping vigil. On reaching him he directed him back to the observation point they had spent the past two some days at and motioned that the Gunny and their radio op were inbound. Turning back then to the building he stared like a hawk at the outbuilding.

Moments later the slightest of sounds brought Mike’s attention to his rear where he spied his two Marines coming in low and fast. On his elbows and knees Mike scrabbled back to Edwards where the Gunny lay sweating. Pulling all of their heads down low Mike whispered “We must get inside and get those containers back to Alpha base” meaning their base camp. Continuing “Nick, send a burst that we’re going to need that Pave Hawk yesterday and to pack equipment slings. Check for a good LZ 15 klicks down the road. We’ll pop an infrared strobe when they signal us 1 klick out.”

Drawing the farm layout in the dirt Mike motioned “Gunny, you and Edwards lead the assault. Go in fast and hard but use your suppressors.” Looking at Nick he waved back “Nick once you get that sat burst off I want your ass back 50 meters to cover our exit – be prepared for anything. I’m going to stay in reserve until I see you and you” pointing at the Gunny and Edwards “in and secure. I want to make sure nothing crawls up your ass and when I see you’re clear I’m in. We’re aiming for the truck with the containers. We must extricate those containers at all costs. Understood? Look for me to get the truck rolling out with no lights Nick. Gunny you and Edwards jump on the back when I’m out the door. We’re hijacking this Mother and will be running like whipped dogs! Questions?” as he checked their faces for the affirmative nods. The Gunny gave him a slight look but then gave him a strong slow affirmative nod.

“All right, check your weapons.” As he checked his own. “GO!” in a strong whispered command.

Mike watched his two marines leapfrog the other as they made their way to the building. One ran while the other took a knee scanning the front. Finally, both came to the edge of the building and looked back at him through their NVGs. Waving forward and nodding he watched them move quickly to the door. Gunny moved first diving down into the doorway as Edwards jumped behind him. The M-4s gave off silent clacks as they spit their fire quickly and efficiently at their victims.  Mike noted that they had remembered the sub-sonic rounds.  Watching as Gunny slowly got to a knee Mike took a quick check to his rear. Looking back he saw the Gunny and Edwards proceed cautiously in. Looking around one more time he jumped up and ran to the building. Without hesitation he ran straight in to the truck noticing Gunny and Edwards on flanking positions protecting him as he jumped in the truck.

He glanced around the cab and failed to see the keys. Grinning to himself he remembered his Granddaddy teaching him how to hotwire cars at his old filling station. Reaching under the steering column he grabbed the wire bundle and with one swipe of his Gerber knife severed the strands. Peering in he realized he didn’t know which wire was which in this strange schematic.

Taking a chance he sparked two together and jumped when he heard “OOOHHHGGGAAAA” from the horn. The Gunny looked like he was going to shoot him when Edwards barked “COLONEL you’ve woken the whole fucking neighborhood! INCOMING!”

Mike looked up to see three figures spill out of the farmhouse. Grabbing a different wire he sparked again and this time heard the engine roar to life. Twisting the pair together tightly he yelled “Get you asses on board!” as he threw it in gear. Not looking to see if they obeyed he gunned the vehicle out the building.

He heard rounds whining past the cab as he mashed the gas. Heading out the door he turned off the road momentarily fooling his pursuit by driving across the chickpea fields. As he bumped across the field a soft whump followed by an explosion behind him brought a smile to his face. That boy loves his M-203 Mike thought. The M-203 was a 40 millimeter grenade launcher attached to the under frame of a M-4. Another round lofted over his head as Mike made a beeline for his radio ops position with the sound of another high explosive round landing behind him. A 40mm high explosive grenade will ruin your day grinned Mike as he ground to a halt beside Nick “need a ride?” deadpanned the Recon officer.

Halting just long enough for Nick to toss his gear in the opposite side of the cab and hearing a reassuring slap on the cab wall from the Gunny, Mike tossed the truck into first and ground across the fields out of range of his now silent pursuit. Driving roughly across the fields and damned near losing the rear axle as he bounced across a drainage ditch Mike yanked the truck onto the M5 improved highway that bee lined east towards Iraq. Redlining the engine they sped along the dark highway for 15 km while Nick sent another encoded message while holding a red-lensed flashlight in his teeth aimed at a topographic map. Mike continued guiding the truck down the black highway with the lights off using his NVGs.

Pulling off at Nick’s direction well before they neared the small village of Bushayrah they crawled up a ravine heading south for a few hundred meters to a spot oblivious of the road. Dismounting, Gunny set up defensive positions with Edwards and Nick screening as Mike went back to the cargo box to examine more closely their prize. Sucking air softly through his teeth Mike heard Gunny approach “Begging the Colonels pardon, but what the fuck was that all about? Non Commissioned officers in the Corps were not famous for their diplomacy and this short but powerful E-7 was no exception. Gunny continued “Would you mind telling this Gunny why all the John Wayne bullshit when our orders were to observe and report?”

Pointing to the bottom of the containers Mike waved his hand for the Gunny to notice what he had already spied through the open building doors. Mike laughed out loud as he had, in all the years he had known Gunny Rodriguez, seen the man look this pale.

Slowly shaking his head Gunny murmured “Son of a Bitch Colonel! Our luck it’d be raining pussies and we’d get hit with a dick!” pointing at the container.

The container marking showed the universal sign for spent nuclear fuel rods containing plutonium.

Nodding, Mike shivered as the cold desert air surrounded them and was brought back to the moment as Nick interrupted his thoughts with “Colonel, Pave Hawk 2 klicks out … want me to pop the IR strobe?” Mentally shifting back into gear he commanded “Get right on it Corporal! Gunny, be prepared to help those Airedales sling this sack of shit under the bird so we can Un-Ass this shitty corner of the world!”

Simultaneously “Aye Aye Skipper!” emitted from both Marines as Mike pondered what a can of worms they had kicked over here in the Syrian wilderness. Grateful that those kinds of decision were above his pay grade he prepared to evacuate his team.

After the dust-storm subsided from the helicopters rotors and the Pave hawk crew had improvised a strong sling for the containers the Marines tossed their gear into the open door and kept their eyes peeled westward as the chopper’s engine spooled into gear. Lifting off Mike thought about what he was going to say at the debrief as they headed towards the relative safety of Iraq. Looking back over his shoulder he smiled as he spied all three of his Marines already fast asleep as the chopper sped across the alien terrain. 

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