It was another couple hours in the stifling heat of the closed compartment, bouncing around in the back of the janga truck before the driver stopped again. Liquid Sky disembarked the truck and Bill had a few more words with the driver, both of them taking turns pointing to a ridge line silhouetted against the starry night sky. Afghanistan had no light pollution, and unlike the Western world, you could see an entire universe of stars out in the badlands of Central Asia.
Bill slapped the driver on the shoulder and returned to the team.
“This is our VDO,” he said announcing their Vehicle Drop Off point. “We will rendezvous with the driver at the exfil point early in the morning.”
Deckard checked the knock off Rolex watch that had been a part of his issued kit. It was almost midnight and he had a feeling that they would have a long walk ahead of them. Each Liquid Sky member grabbed a couple bottles of water on the way out and shoved them into their pockets. Bill had an old Soviet map in hand and led the patrol up into the mountains.
The approach to the mountains was hazardous to say the least and suicidal at worst. They couldn’t use flashlights because the light would compromise the patrol and Night Vision Goggles were to high tech for a sterile mission that could have no hint of American involvement, mercenary or otherwise. There was enough ambient light for them to slowly feel their way up the side of the mountain but they still slipped and slid on the soft rock that broke away under their feet. Slowly but surely Liquid Sky gained in elevation as they climbed towards the ridge above that bumped across the night sky, looking like the broken spine of a dragon.
Within half an hour of climbing they were all covered in sweat, their man dresses soaked through. They drank water while on the move. The former SEALs chugged water and then tossed the water bottles on the rocks. It was bad form to leave any sign of your presence behind, but clearly these guys didn’t care. They were on a one way trip and their only real concern was getting to the target that night and doing the dirty deed. Deckard downed his first bottle of water and followed suit, dropping the plastic bottle behind him.
Their VDO had left them about a third of the way up the mountain to begin with and now they were climbing higher and higher, at some points it was so steep that they were able to reach out and grab the terrain right in front of them. Bill led the patrol, taking them in winding switchbacks that inched up the ridge when the going got too steep.
There was nothing technical about their climb, it was good old fashion LPC’s, Leather Personnel Carriers. That and a lot of sweat. Still, they were doing it like the locals, traveling with the bare essentials in weapons and equipment. They were not nearly as weighted down as American soldiers were in body armor and other equipment so at least they had that going for them.
The Liquid Sky team took a short five minute break after climbing the wind swept rock for another hour. They sipped on what water they had left and tried to let their legs rest as they sat facing down hill. Steam was coming off their over worked bodies in the cool night air. Bill was the first to stand and start the final push to the top of the ridge.
Forty five minutes later the team huffed and grunted over the ridge. Deckard’s leg was throbbing, the cut on his thigh was hot to the touch with inflammation. The rest of the team was also hunched over, grabbing their knees as they tried to catch their breath. They were in good shape and no one complained, but between the altitude and the demanding climb they were all winded.
“That’s it,” Bill said pointing down into the valley.
Below them was a small archipelago of walled compounds. Pin pricks of light could be seen in the darkness from morning fires being lit in the courtyards. Bill was pointing to the nearest compound at the base of the mountain. That was their target.
“Let’s get down there and clean the place out,” he ordered.
Liquid Sky scrambled down the side of the mountain for the better part of two hours, the way down actually being more strenuous than the way up. It was almost four in the morning by the time they bottomed out in the valley and walked along the edge of dry river bed. It was a wide, rocky gouge in the earth that looked like it hadn’t seen water since the Triassic Period but when the rains came in once a year water would come rushing down the river bed like a deluge and sweep away anything in its path.
Bill picked up the pace as they moved out in a single file. They had to make up some time to get into position, hit the compound, and move out before the sun came up. Moving from the river bed, they crawled over a rock wall and walked through a terraced field. Finally, they were within a hundred meters of the target compound.
“Listen up,” Rick whispered to Deckard. “You are our black side security so that means you need to position yourself where you can see the back of the compound.”
Deckard knew what black side security was but merely nodded his head.
“Find a good field of fire so you can waste anyone who tries to go over the high walls and escape.”
“We will be preparing to breach. Radio us when you are in position.”
Deckard skirted around the edge of the compound, weaving between scraggly trees that barely clung to life. It only took a few minutes for him to find a shallow depression that he could lay in where he would have an open lane of fire on the back side of the compound with his AK-47. He pressed on the push to talk button on his radio.
“This is Deck. I’m set.”
“Okay dude,” it sounded like Rick.
They would not be explosively breaching the compound’s gate, that would give away the American presence. Deckard didn’t see any mechanical breaching equipment like battering rams or hoolie tools, none of them would want to have carried that crap up the side of the mountain anyway. He did see Zach with a locally procured double barrel shotgun over one shoulder, so he knew it would be a ballistic breach.
The radio crackled and hissed so Deckard turned the volume down a little bit more.
“Standby,” came the call.
Two shotgun blasts punctured the night. Deckard tucked the stock of his AK into the pocket of his shoulder and waited. There was a long silence as the Liquid Sky mercenaries began clearing the compound. Then came the gunfire, first in spurts and then full auto blasts. It was a one sided fire fight, Liquid Sky no doubt catching the enemy stumbling out of bed in the night. More auto fire sounded, then silence, then a few single shots here and there. Finally, everything went quiet again.
Then a Afghan dropped down off the back wall and crumbled to the ground.
Deckard confirmed a pistol in the Afghan’s fist as he attempted to run away out into the fields. Pushing the selector lever one click down, he aimed low at the runner’s legs and triggered a full auto burst of gunfire. Three of the five rounds he let off spun the Afghan around and sent him staggering to the ground.
As he lay in the prone he began to get cold. The last few hours before dawn are usually the coldest and his soaked through clothes were only adding to the problem. Fifteen minutes went by before he heard anything over the radio.
“Black side security,” It sounded like maybe it was Bill. “You got anything?”
“One down crow,” Deckard reported.
A few minutes later Rick radioed that he was coming out to meet Deckard. He stood up and whistled to Rick when he heard him getting close.
“Where is he?” Rick asked.
“Over here,” Deckard said leading him over to the body. Rick fired a couple more shots into the body. It never hurt to make sure corpses were still corpses but then Rick loaded a full magazine. Taking a step back, he aimed at the dead body and fired at the Afghan’s head on full auto. His gunfire blasted the top of the terrorist’s skull clean off and splattered his brains in the dirt. The Liquid Sky member held the trigger down until the rifle cycled through the entire thirty round magazine.
It was a completely unnecessary and unprofessional gesture. Rick had effectively turned the top of the Afghan’s skull into a canoe.
“What was that for?” Deckard asked absently.
“Sending a fucking message,” Rick scolded him. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Deckard followed Rick back around the compound to the breach point. Zach was outside smoking a cigarette. His man dress was splattered with blood, his AK slung over one shoulder. Paul came walking out of the compound with two floppy pancakes in his hands. It took Deckard a moment to realize that the pancakes had hair. Paul had been inside collecting scalps.
“I got two,” he told Zach with a smile.
“Just the woman,” Zach replied, motioning to the clump of long hair and concealing blood at his feet.
Deckard had no illusions about who he was dealing with. They were out murdering democracy advocates and helping to suppress the Arab Spring but this was off the charts. Even among those who went off the reservation, this was pretty much unheard of. He was shocked and would not have believed it if someone had described the scene to him in a bar.
Bill came out with another scalp in his hand and a bloody hatchet in the other.
“Fucking savages never had a chance,” he grinned.
Deckard still couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
Ramon came out carrying a plastic bag filled with documents and computer hard drives he had collected on the objective.
“Get rid of that shit,” Bill told him. “Sterile means nothing goes on the objective and nothing comes off. Zero evidence that we were ever here.”
“This was a major command and control node for the network,” Ramon insisted. “We can ball up the entire network based on what these guys have here.”
“Not our problem,” Bill said. “Let the fucking knuckle draggers in Big Army sort this bullshit third world country out. We work contract to contract.”
Ramon looked pissed, but walked back into the compound with the bag of sensitive materials he had collected. Rick followed him in and returned back with a couple scalps of his own which he dropped at Zach’s feet.
“There is my two.”
Bending over, he wiped the blood off his hatchet on Deckard’s man dress.
“Thanks bro. Gotta make sure this bad boy is ready to go for next time,” Rick informed him.
“We got a pickup inside the compound,” Ramon said as he walked back out.
“Good, that will save is some time,” Bill replied. “Deckard, go hot wire that fucker and get us out of here.”
“Wait a second,” Paul said stopping him. “Let me give you a hand.”
Reaching into his pocket, Paul pulled out a dismembered hand and threw it at Deckard. It bounced off his chest and thumped between his feet in a cloud of dust. The Liquid Sky team burst out laughing at the look of disgust on his face.
Deckard walked back inside the compound trying to process what had just happened. These guys were so far gone that there was no turning back for any of them. His plan had always been to infiltrate and then destroy. Now it didn’t matter what his plan was. He was all out of choices. These were former Special Operations men like himself and so many others who served.
It was his responsibility as a veteran to clean up this mess. There was no need for him to justify this to himself, it justified itself. It was time to choose the hard right over the easy wrong. Finding the pickup truck in the corner of the compound, he threw open the door and went to work on the ignition.
As he began to pry the ignition cylinder out with a piece of metal he found laying around, Deckard felt completely disgusted with what he had involved himself in. Even if they were terrorists, this wasn’t how soldiers carried themselves. It wasn’t just about disrespecting the enemy dead, more importantly, it was about the discipline and self respect that the soldier had for himself. Once the rot of war crimes infected a military organization it would spread throughout the unit like a plague and destroy everything that they had once stood for. They would be no different than Al Qaeda and the other human savages that they fought. At that point, the war was already lost.
Just as he hot wired the truck, Deckard knew he would have to be slow and deliberate. He couldn’t allow his emotions to control him like the Liquid Sky team. One slip up and he was a dead man. He needed to play along, maybe no matter how dark this road he was heading down got. When the time was right, at a place and time of his choosing, he would drop the hammer and be done with this.
The pickup truck rumbled to life. Deckard got behind the wheel and worked the stick shift, driving out of the compound. Outside, the five other Liquid Sky operators piled into the truck, several sitting in the back. Bill got in the passenger seat and told Deckard he could flip on the headlights and white light it down the road. They just needed to make a quick exit from the target area before daylight and the risk of an ambush was fairly low. He gave him directions on where to go as they drove towards their extraction site. After driving for half an hour the sun was starting to crest above the horizon.
Bill ordered everyone out of the truck. Deckard put it in neutral and they pushed the vehicle into a creek bed where it rolled over on its side. At least it would be out of sight to any passers by. Then it was back up the mountain. They had done an off set infil, first traveling by Trojan janga truck and then moving by foot to the objective to maintain the element of surprise and absolute secrecy prior to their assault. It was sound planning, but now they had to walk all the way back to the exfil site where their janga truck driver would pick them up along a different spot along the road.
By the time they were half way up the ridge it was full daylight. The good thing was that they were far enough away from the road below and their objective that it was unlikely that anyone would spot them. They could see the smattering of compounds below, but without optics, no one was going to see a few ants climbing the side of the mountain.
By eight in the morning they again crested the ridge. Everyone was out of water. It was a short duration mission with one specific task, hunting and killing with zero American involvement as far as anyone could prove. They took five up on top of the ridge, everyone having a seat on the rocks and admiring the view. Afghanistan was really the prettiest part of hell. It would have been a nice place to visit if not for the Islamist radicals. And the occasional rogue mercenary.
Zach and Rick got into a blow by blow about who killed who and how it had all gone down.
“They were Al Qaeda?” Deckard asked Ramon.
“Naw man,” he answered. “Those were Karzai’s guys.”
“Yeah, they were tied into the President of Afghanistan. Running a huge drug trafficking network for him. Completely untouchable by US Special Operations for political reasons. That’s why we got called in.”
“No kidding. They let him get away with it for a long time but I guess he is starting to lean away from America and more towards China these days so someone wanted to give him a gut check. That’s my take on it anyway.”
“Its a good thing we took them out.”
Ramon turned to him and whispered, “Look, you did good today. Just keep your head down and they will offer you a full time job. We do a lot of killing and make good money at it. Its just harder for us Army guys to get an in with them.”
“I got it.”
But Deckard didn’t get it. He had completely misread Ramon by thinking he was a SEAL.
They picked it up and started their descent. It was a long haul through the morning as they suffered in the heat and slipped down through the dirt and debris. A few times they had to cling to the sides of cliffs and move hand over hand on their way along until they could find a wider path down the mountain. Bill was up front again and he began talking into his radio when the road came into view. There was no sign of their ride home but he was talking to someone.
They walked down a spur coming off the mountain which over looked the road and halted. Bill signaled them to stay low as they gathered around a rocky outcropping that looked like something that belonged on the set of Conan the Barbarian.
At this point they were only a few hundred meters above the road. Down below was a village with a stream running along side the road. Terraced fields were dug into the opposite side of the valley with houses and huts propped up against the sides of the cliffs at impossible angles. People lived where the water was, no matter how ridiculous the terrain might be. They learned to live there.
In the stream next to the road, a woman in a blue burka stood in the water up to her ankles, washing dishes, pots, and pans that she laid next to her one by one as she scrubbed them out.
“Where is our GI Joe Army guy?” Bill asked. “Deckard, get your ass up here.”
Deckard high crawled over to Bill and watched the scene below.
“You see that Hadji twat down there?”
“This is our extraction point and that fucking cunt is in the way. She’ll compromise us. You’re disguised as a local so I want you to get close to her and cut her fucking throat. Think you can do it?”
“Yeah,” Deckard said without hesitation.
“You got a knife?”
“No, just the kit you issued me.”
“Here,” Bill said handing him a rusty butcher knife. Another local purchase. “Make it happen. Once it is done we will come down and I’ll call in our driver.”
“Piece of cake.”
“Yeah,” Bill said dryly. “We’ll see.”
“Do that bitch Deckard,” Rick told him. “Go only only knows how many puppies she will squeeze out that will become Allah lovin’ terrorists.”
Deckard looked down at the road for a moment and plotted his route down to the stream. He figured it out in a few seconds and then dropped down below the crest of the spur, keeping the terrain feature between himself and the woman below. He stepped very carefully now as not to give away his position. Stepping from heel to toe, he slowly maneuvered his way down to the road. The small stones still ground beneath his footsteps but that couldn’t be helped.
Moving slowly, he made it down to the road, then crossed it out of sight of the woman. With any luck, she would have finished her task and have walked back home by the time he got there. Another reason why he was in no rush.
There was no way that Deckard was going to murder a civilian in cold blood. The game was over before he had even gotten started. Bill had called his bluff. They wanted to see if he was one of them, ensure that he was a war criminal and just a guilty as the rest of the group. No doubt, the entire Liquid Sky team would have their rifles pointed at him and the woman, ready to open fire on them both if he failed to complete his task.
Crouching in a thicket of bushes, he checked his AK-47 and Glock pistol to make sure he had rounds chambered and ready to go. Once he closed on the woman, he would drag her across the stream and behind a stone wall a few meters further back. From there he would have to escape and evade, run has hard as he could, ambush the Liquid Sky team when and where he could to slow them down, and eventually find a vehicle and make his way back to Kabul. Truth be told, he’d be lucky if he lasted five seconds into that plan and he knew it.
He was a dead man walking, killed by his own self restraint.
Silently, Deckard moved through the thicken in a crouch. He cursed as he saw the blue burka through the twigs and leaves of the bushes. She could have saved her own life, if she had only known. Now they were both dead.
Deckard was on the opposite bank of the stream from her but the stream was only a few feet wide. Once he closed the distance he would be right on top of her. He could jump out of the bushes, grab her, and make a run for it. Maybe. A big maybe.
The Afghan woman bent down to wash another one of the pots. He was almost within striking distance now. The American commando readjusted the sling on his shoulder and prepared to move. He had the butcher knife in his hand up until this point, but now he stuck it in his belt.
He took a deep breath. It was now or never. His muscles tensed, prepared for what was about to happen. He was ready to execute.
Suddenly, the woman stood straight up and turned towards him.
“What the fuck do you think you are fucking doing you stupid cocksucker?” she asked him.
His jaw hit the ground.
“Get your dick beaters in the air where I can see them. What the fuck are you doing over there?” The voice coming through the burka didn’t match anything Deckard had expected to say the least but it was a woman’s voice. “Hey fucker, I’m talking to you.”
Suddenly the crackle of a radio sounded under the burka.
“Got you good this time,” Bill’s voice said over the radio. Laughter could be heard coming over the net.
“Very funny asshole,” the burka clad woman said. “Who is this needle dick you sent down here to hide in the bushes?”
“He’s the new guy,” Bill answered. “Whatever.”
Deckard was pissed.
“Who the fuck are you?” he asked the woman.
“Who the fuck am I?” she answered as if she was insulted. “I’m the one who has been pulling over watch on your fucking objective for twenty four hours dick face. I confirmed that Muhammad what-ever-the-fuck was bedding down there. Then I walked through the night to secure your fucking extraction,” she practically screamed. “That’s who I fucking am, so who the fuck are you.”
“Just a trigger puller told to do a job,” he answered honestly.
“And like a true meat head you proved to be very good at following orders. Good for you. Just squat there in the bushes and try not to piss me off any more than you have already.”
“Yes ma’am,” Deckard said as he rolled his eyes. This was getting stupid.
Exhausted, Deckard sat on the edge of the stream with his feet in the water. The woman kicked the pots into the water and cursed at him some more. They sat silently for a few minutes, Deckard unable to discern anything about her through the mesh eye window in the burka. A few minutes later the rest of the team arrived and sat down alongside the stream. The tactically correct answer was to push into the thicket and maintain a security perimeter but that didn’t seem to concern Liquid Sky.
“What the fuck was that?” the woman asked.
“C’mon Nadeesha, it was just a joke,” Rick laughed.
“And how far would you have let that joke go before that pussy sunk a knife into my back?”
She was pissed, balling up the burka and threw it into the stream. Underneath she wore spandex shorts and a loose t-shirt. That and a MP-5k Sub-machine gun. Deckard’s eyes went wide. Her skin was dark like someone from Southern India but she had almost Caucasian features and large brown eyes. The woman, Nadeesha, busted him too, seeing the look in his eyes as she swung around to point at him in her fury. She paused for a split second, also surprised by the expression on his face.
She was beautiful and none of it made sense to him.
“Fuck all you guys,” Nadeesha spat. “I quit.”
“Bullshit,” Zach laughed.
“Yeah, that is like the fifth time you’ve quit,” Paul said.
“We pay you way to much for you to quit,” Bill reminded her. “Speaking of which, where the fuck is our extract.”
“He should be here any minute,” she said shaking her head. “Where did you find this peckerwood,” the said while cocking her chin towards Deckard.
“Craigs List,” Bill said.
“What the fuck.”
Just then the Janga truck pulled up, the driver with a big toothy grin. Another successful mission and another big pay day for him. One by one, Liquid Sky crammed back into the secret compartment in the back. Nadeesha scowled at Deckard as there was limited space inside and she had to sit next to him. The truck started to move and while the door was still cracked open Rick passed out the remaining bottles of water before locking the door shut.
Five hours later they arrived back on FOB Chapman where they discretely unloaded and jumped on an awaiting CASA airplane heading to Kabul. Bill had paid the janga truck driver in cash which he happily accepted. The plane touched down in Kabul and an hour later the entire six man and one woman team flew out on an international flight.
Meanwhile, in southern Afghanistan, the drug trafficking organization that they had hit during the night decided to retaliate. Tied into the Taliban, they called in fighters from all over the province, as well as insurgents from as far as Pakistan.
For the next few weeks they set up ambushes and IED’s alongside the main roads that weaved through their territory. Without any suspects in the hit on the drug lords compound and murder of him and his entire family, the Taliban simply assumed that the Americans were involved and struck back against whatever Americans they could find.
Within six days their IED’s and ambushes had killed four American soldiers. Private First Class Nelson, Specialist Rodriguez, Private First Class Thomas, and First Sergeant Harper were all returned to the United States in bodybags. A dozen others were flown to Ramstein Airforce base and then to Walter Reed with critical injuries.