Chapter Ten

The MH-47 helicopters screamed through the night, the dull black finish on their fuselage blending seamlessly with the dark skyline.

The twin rotor blades cut through the air as they flew nap-of-the-earth, following the contour lines of the mountains as they rose and fell just a dozen meters above the surface, the pilots flying by instrument and night vision goggles.

In the belly of the six rotary wing aircraft, the passengers sat on the cold floor, front to back, loaded down with rifles, machine guns, ammunition, and grenades. The aircraft were completely blacked out, no one dozing off, due to a combination of pre-combat jitters and motion sickness as the helicopters rocked up and down.

The flight to the first combat outpost for refueling had been uneventful; now they were in a combat zone where pilots were subject to fire from surface-to-air weapons and small arms fire from guerrilla fighters from a dozen different factions vying for control over the rugged landscape below.

Door gunners on each side of the MH-47s leaned out into the cool night air, hands never leaving the minigun handles in their hands. Thousands of rounds were chained up and loaded through a feed chute leading to the internal magazine. A separate chute led down and out of the aircraft to eject links and hot brass.

As the foothills and mountains passed by, they spotted only the occasional walled compound, each family household an actual fortress with thirty foot walls and guard towers. There were no visible signs of life, no light amplified even through their image intensifying goggles. It was much too early for morning fires to be lit to warm the first kettle of chai, and electricity had yet to reach within fifty miles on their operational area.

Crew chiefs listened to their headsets as the mission commander in the lead helicopter put his men on notice. They clapped their hands to get the attention of their helicopter’s occupants, letting them know that they were five minutes out.

Stretching arms and legs, the commandos pitched and yawed back and forth as the transport birds banked, taking evasive maneuvers and leaving nothing to chance. Using the side of the helicopter or each other for support, they pushed themselves up on a knee, preparing to move at a moment’s notice, even as they were thrown about the aircraft.

The anticipation built as the rotors began to change their pitch. Some were nervous, afraid of the unknown. Others were eager to get on the ground because they had had to urinate for the last three hours. A few relished the opportunity for combat but would never speak of it.

Rapidly bleeding altitude, the black helicopters flared over a wadi that hadn’t seen water in generations. The washout was created by ancient seasonal rains, creating the only area resembling a suitable landing zone for kilometers.

No one had been available to reconnoiter or secure the drop zone ahead of time, but during the hasty mission planning, the ground force commander had assured the senior pilots that in the event they couldn’t land, due to unstable soil or rocky terrain, that his men would simply jump off the back ramp, dropping the final ten feet to the ground.

Leveling out, the pilots began to hover down to the ground. Coming in strung out in a file across the length of the wadi with valley walls rising on each side in pitch darkness required a degree of precision that the aviators had trained their entire lives for.

Closer to the ground, the combined power of twelve sets of rotors kicked up a cloud of dust that almost instantly browned out the pilots. Looking below, the gunners continued to guide them down to the ground as the rotor blades chopped at the dust cloud, creating sparks of light that could be seen in the green glow of their night vision goggles.

Gently, the wheels under the belly of the helicopters made contact with the surface of the wadi. Hearing the news from the gunners and getting the okay from the pilots, the crew chiefs gave the order to disembark.

As one, the commandos rose to their feet and stormed down the ramp and into a twisting sandstorm. The dust swirled like a miniature tornado around the troops as they fanned out to security positions, hefting machine guns and mortar tubes with them.

Taking a knee and facing out, the troops were stung as sand beat at their exposed necks and faces. The line of MH-47s lifted off, hovering straight up and into the air before their noses dipped down, charging forward.

With the transport aircraft disappearing into the night, the commandos were left in the moonscape of Afghanistan in an eerie silence.

Platoon sergeants began giving orders in hushed voices, their men organizing into their squads, preparing themselves for movement.

It was going to be a long walk.

* * *

Fahran unrolled his mat, aiming it west towards Mecca, and began to pray alongside his peers, two young men he had grown up with in Kandahar. Learning by rote in the madrassas held little interest for the teenagers, and employment was easy to come by for someone as young and able as they were.

The boys performed the salaat as their fathers and father’s fathers had, going back farther into antiquity then anyone could remember. Their words came from impassioned hearts that beat strongly in their chests, forming words long since committed to memory.

None of the boys heard the suppressed gunshots. The steel core bullets sought them out in the night, drilling them in the back of their heads, one each, ending the call to prayer. A dozen Kazakh mercenaries advanced forward, quickly securing the area as several Americans appeared carrying the silenced VSS rifles that had dispatched the small guard contingent.

The Kazakhs surrounded a hole in the ground and peered below, having no idea where the bottom was but hearing the rush of water below. One of their comrades dug into his pack and produced a steel wire caving ladder. Tethering the caving ladder off to a nearby boulder, they dropped it down the hole, the ladder uncoiling and splashing at the bottom.

Deckard moved forward while slinging his VSS rifle. Making a circular motion above his head, he pointed to the ground where the three bodies lay cooling themselves under moonlight. The mortar section moved forward, the first gun team setting in their base plate. In a few minutes the entire mortar section would be up and ready for fire missions.

Gripping the cold steel rungs of the caving ladder, Deckard took the lead, lowering himself down into the darkness. The karez was actually an ancient irrigation system dug below the water table that carried water to fields for agriculture, some of them dozens of kilometers away, in this case about ten klicks to the nearest village.

Hand over hand he descended, the air growing cooler below as the sound of the underground stream grew louder. His boots reached into the water, his feet feeling the frigid water seep in as he released himself and dropped into the thigh deep water.

Nearly slipping, he braced himself on the sides of the canal. Flipping down his night vision goggles, Deckard activated the infrared flashlight built into them to create some ambient light for the NVG tube to amplify.

Seeing nothing but cold water and cold earth walls, he looked up and gave two IR flashes, letting the team know that it was clear. Moving forward, he made some space, hearing the first squad carefully coming down the ladder behind him.

It was an opening gambit, one he preferred to a frontal assault that was guaranteed to end in a hundred percent causalities.

With the VSS compact assault rifle tucked into the pocket of his shoulder, Deckard edged down the waterway, struggling to see what lay ahead through the green tint of his night vision goggles. Taking point, he could hear the lead squad of Kazakhs gently sloshing through the water behind him.

It had been less than twenty-four hours since he had snatched the Operations Order off of the fax machine at his battalion’s headquarters.

They had no warning or hint of it coming through his private channels, the hacks and bugs planted in the Samruk corporate offices. He wasn’t even given the courtesy of a warning order to allow him to plan. But as he stalked down the dark tunnel, the former soldier knew that was, in fact, the plan from the beginning. Beta testing. Was Samruk combat ready, and was Deckard prepared to lead them into combat? The eleventh hour Op Order was designed to add more stress and urgency onto what was already an extremely challenging company level mission.

US Air Force C17 transport aircraft from Bagram had landed in Astana within hours. Most of that planning had to be done en route.

Using a pace count by keeping track of each time his left foot touched the slippery surface of the underground aqueduct, he knew he had already traveled four hundred meters. By the looks of the imagery he had studied at Bagram Airfield, the karez continued for kilometers. Hopefully they would find what he was looking for before traveling that far.

The only good news was that it would be extremely difficult to set anti-personnel mines in such fast moving water.

Listening carefully, he could tell the Kazakh mercenaries were falling behind. It wasn’t entirely their fault; with minimal equipment there were not enough night vision systems to go around. At the moment there were no circumstances where he would allow visible lights to be used since they could compromise the entire operation.

Backtracking, he found the point man for the Kazakh squad and physically placed the commando’s hand on the back of his desert fatigue shirt, ensuring that he had a tight grasp before continuing. The rest of the squad had a safety line that was tied around each soldier’s waist, so there should be no further breaks on contact.

He had no one to blame but himself. Limited timetable aside, the planning and execution had been rushed to the point that he was leading the main element of the operation, a job normally belonging to a squad or platoon leader.

Proceeding slowly, all of his senses were strained to their limits. Maintaining a high level of alertness was a requirement in an environment this unforgiving. Subterranean combat was about the most dangerous thing Deckard could imagine, next to other enclosed tubular assaults such as a hostage rescue on an airliner or passenger train.

Eyes and ears detecting nothing in the darkness other than his own breathing and racing heartbeat, he picked up the pace slightly, leading the mercenaries forward. After counting off an additional six hundred meters, Deckard’s hand ran off the side of the karez where the wall had been scooped out, creating a landing.

Reaching back, he released the Kazakh’s hand and moved forward, the muzzle of his rifle tracking back and forth. Deckard stepped up and out of the water, onto the earth platform, scanning for targets. The ground was worn, indicating that the area was well traveled; however no other signs of life were present.

Cursing under his breath, he wondered if his gamble had been a waste of time, foreplay before the inevitable.

Backtracking for the lead Kazakh, he helped him and the rest of the squad up onto the platform, whispering in Russian for them to establish a security perimeter. The Samruk mercenaries watched down the unexplored end of the tunnel while the rest of the platoon filed onto the landing.

Allowing red lens flashlights, they began searching the carved out portion of the karez. Footprints were quickly found. The faint tread of the type of sandals Afghans favored could be seen across the dirt floor. A couple observant Kazakhs turned up shell casings but thankfully no booby traps so far. Looking around, Deckard spotted a pool of water at the far end of the chamber.

“What’s the deal boss,” Frank said, coming up along side him.

“Did your squad unroll the commo wire down here yet?”

“Yeah, they got the spool right behind us.”

Sure enough Deckard could see one of the Kazakhs with his red light out, carrying a giant spool of WD-1A communication wire. It served the dual purpose of acting as a guideline for the mercenaries to move back and forth through the tunnels, as well as providing a way for them to talk to the mortar section back on the surface.

“Connect the field telephone and make sure that mortars are up.”

“What about us?”

“I need to see what this is, before planning our next move,” Deckard said, pointing to the pool of standing water. “I think this is a water lock, but I have to be sure.”

“Like the Viet Cong used back in the day?”

“Yeah, low tech defense from an enemy introducing poison gas into the tunnel system or overpressure from explosives. The insurgent answer to American air power.”

“Not a bad way to conceal hidden exits either.”

“The karez systems are maintained by the communities that use them, but they are built by tradesmen who pass their secrets down from father to son. The same goes for any adjoining tunnels the Taliban may have forced them to build before the war.”

“So who draws the short straw?”

“I’ll do it, should only be a few feet underwater.”

“Should be.”

Deckard flipped up his night vision goggles, knowing he’d have to be careful not to crush them while underwater, and handed his rifle off to Frank. He was breaking a cardinal rule of getting out of arm’s length of his primary weapon, but drowning because his rifle or sling got tangled on something in an underwater cave didn’t appeal to him at the moment.

Slipping into the water, he involuntarily held his breath as the icy water circled his chest. Forcing a few deep breaths, he disappeared beneath the surface. The water was freezing cold and pitch dark for several claustrophobic seconds while Deckard clawed his way through the passage, emerging to take a massive gulp of stale air on the other side.

Pushing the NVGs down on the swing arm attached to the helmet mount, Deckard scanned back and forth. The Afghans who built the karez had their trade secrets, all right, and that extended to secret and hidden tunnels connecting various underground constructs. For instance, an emergency escape tunnel connecting a bunker complex to an ancient karez aqueduct.

Another deep breath, and he slipped back under the water lock, surfacing on the other side.

“It’s good,” Deckard said, squinting as Frank indiscriminately flashed his red light in his face. “We’ve got their egress route.”

“How could you possibility have known this would be here?” Frank said, shaking his head.

“I didn’t,” Deckard responded, soberly, as he reached out, reclaiming his rifle. “It was an extrapolation based on the proximity of the karez to the bunker system.”

“In other words, you pulled it out of your ass.”

“Maybe. Have Third Platoon remain topside with the mortar section, and get Second Platoon down here to secure this foothold. We’ll take First Platoon the rest of the way to the bunkers.”

“Roger. We got comms with topside. Give me two minutes.”

“Shouldn’t take that long,” Deckard said, motioning for First Squad to follow him through the water lock. Once on the other side, he helped the Kazakhs out of the water, all of them now soaking wet and freezing cold. Caves and underground passages kept the same cold temperature year round, regardless of what the climate was topside. At least the walls were wider and there wasn’t any running water to complicate their footing.

Under night vision, he got First Squad together on a safety line before moving onto Second and Third squad. Frank was with Second Platoon in the karez, and Sergeant Alexander would be at the rear, the platoon sergeant pushing his men forward. Finally Alexander came through the water lock with another spool of commo wire, trailing a line behind him back to the karez so the point element could maintain communications all the way back to the surface.

Glancing at the luminescent hands on his wrist watch, Deckard knew they had less then six hours of darkness left. Special Operations helicopters only flew at night, so if the assault went on into daylight hours, then they were stuck out in the hinterlands for an additional twelve or more hours until the next period of darkness.

Deckard forced himself to remain calm. Getting overly excited wouldn’t make the situation better. There were a lot of moving parts, a lot of contingencies, and a million things that could go wrong. So far they were on track, even if somewhat behind schedule.

Proceeding cautiously, Deckard noted that the tunnel was better built with wide smooth walls that had even been cemented over in some portions. The Kazakhs shuffled behind him in the dark, following the crazy American into god knew what.

The tunnel more or less continued on a straight azimuth for another half kilometer before forking off in two directions. One passage continued straight towards the mountains where the objective was located; the other looked like it led to a dead end.

Halting the squad, he again took the lead, moving slowly while on lookout for any signs of danger. Straining his eyes through a dimly lit, green-tinted world cast by his night vision device, Deckard literally ran into the haphazardly constructed staircase. Suppressing a grunt of frustration, he looked up the rock carved stairs. They led up to the ceiling. The entrance seemed to be covered over at the top with wooden planks and something else, maybe a carpet.

Moving back, he ordered the Kazakhs to secure the intersection in his still stunted Russian. The mercenaries complied as best they could, still unable to see anything. Moving down the ranks of the platoon, whispering Alexander’s name, he found the platoon sergeant and moved him up front. Alexander possessed one of Samruk’s much sought after night vision systems, and Deckard pointed out to him the fork in the tunnel before showing him the staircase.

“Worth checking out,” Deckard whispered.

“Da, da.” he nodded.

The American pointed to the suppressor on the VSS sub-assault rifle and then pulled out a Ka-bar fighting knife identical to the one each commando carried.

Alexander nodded his head, the message clear. Keep it quiet.

Once in the alcove and away from the main passage, Deckard again allowed red lights to be used. First Squad quickly lit up the area, so they could see what they were doing. They untied their safety line and followed Deckard as he led them up the stone staircase. Feeling the material between the wooden planks at the top of the stairs, he confirmed that it was simply the underside of a carpet. A simple but effective way to conceal another hidden entrance to a cursory glance from the other side.

Keeping watch on the concealed entrance with his silenced rifle, Deckard pointed a finger at the wood and carpet covering the top of the stairs. Alexander ushered his men forward, and they climbed up, brushing past their commander.

They shifted the planks out of the way as carefully and quietly as possible, but at that moment it sounded earth shattering to the group of mercenaries, knowing that compromise in this situation would mean almost certain death. They were completely blind to what was going on topside.

With the opening exposed, Deckard climbed up, hand over hand. He found himself in an empty room with mud walls and a dirt floor; it could be any house in Afghanistan, but this one had giggles and grunts coming from the adjacent room.

Hearing a boot drag across the dirt floor, Deckard looked back to see Alexander close on his heels. The platoon sergeant was no coward and wanted to lead from the front, Deckard thought. He probably resented him trying to take charge to begin with. That was a good sign.

Raising a single finger to his lips, Alexander nodded. They were in Indian country.

The two crept forward to the open doorway. Down on one knee, Deckard pivoted at the hips, exposing himself just enough for the night vision tube he wore in front of his left eye to clear the side of the wall and see what was going on in the next room.

He wished he hadn’t.

Moving aside, he motioned the platoon sergeant forward to take a look. For better or worse he needed to know what the situation was before his men were thrown in the middle. Alexander peered into the room and was frozen for a moment as if he didn’t believe what he was seeing before turning away.

He looked a little green around the gills, but maybe it was just the tint of the night vision playing tricks with Deckard’s mind.

Tugging on the platoon sergeant’s sleeve to get his attention, he held up seven fingers in front of his face. He wanted all of First Squad upstairs, then he pointed to the Ka-Bar again. The Kazakh nodded.

Deckard held out one finger and ran it across his neck.

Moments later, First Squad was assembled in front of him, AK-103s slung over their backs, fighting knives in their hands. Deckard started forward, but Alexander put a hand on his chest and took the lead, himself. Deckard let him.

The Kazakh mercenaries silently moved into the adjacent room. A half dozen aging AK-47s were propped up against the opposite wall, their owners lined up and waiting their turn with the group’s house boy. The Taliban giggled and whispered to each other in Pashto while their comrade kept pumping away.

The Samruk soldiers were fairly shocked by this, but Deckard knew that this ‘teasing’, as the Taliban called it, was pretty much par for the course in this part of the world.

The mercenaries descended on the Taliban like wraiths in the night. Steel blades were sunk into throats and carotid arteries, final gasps of life escaping dry lips. The attack was short and vicious, the Taliban pool boy being quickly dispatched as well.

Wiping the bloody combat knives off on the Taliban’s dishdashas, the blades went back into their sheaths before the mercenaries shouldered their AK-103s. It was only a two room house, so one by one the Kazakhs ascended a ladder onto the roof and secured the structure.

Pulling out a piece of paper Deckard had printed out moments before loading the entire company on the back of the MH-47 helicopters, he turned on his own red LED light to look at the satellite imagery. Peering out the windows and doing some rough terrain association under the moonlight, he was almost positive they were in the single standing structure outside the bunker complex, which would place them halfway between where they entered the karez and the bunkers, themselves.

Stumbling back down into the tunnel, he found the Kazakh with the commo wire and field telephone. Unwinding the cable up the stairs, he then handed it up to one of the mercenaries pulling security on the roof. Climbing the ladder, Deckard connected the field telephone to the cable and spoke into the receiver.

“Anybody there?”

Rapid fire Russian greeted him on the other end.

Such was the language barrier.

“Mendez? Find Mendez!”

“Da.”

Several moments passed.

“Yeah,” Mendez came over the line. He was back at the 82mm mortar section.

“It’s me. Look to your northeast.”

“Uh, what am I looking for?”

Deckard reached into the front pocket on his chest rig and pulled out a flashlight. The IZLID was no normal flashlight, however. It was actually an infrared laser used by forward observers to mark targets for fast movers and attack helicopters. Flipping the switch on, he waved it around in the air.

“Shit, is that you?”

“Yeah, we found a passage that led up into this house halfway to the objective.”

“Nice overwatch position.”

“Mark it on your fire direction board; I don’t feel like getting fragged tonight.”

“I gotcha.”

“Here is the deal. Push Third Platoon down the hole. Have Kurt and Chuck lead them, following the commo wire, and catch up with Second Platoon which is still down in the aqueduct. I want both platoons at my position ASAP.”

“You got it.”

“Is Piet there?”

“Yeah, he is here with his two boys.”

“Tell him I want him up here as well.”

“He’ll be glad to hear that.”

“We need them to take another roll of wire with them.”

“Roger.”

Hanging up the field telephone, Deckard turned towards the objective and began to scrutinize the mountainside. Mulavi Ibrahim Khalis, or MIK for short, had dug his organization into the mountain several years ago. The warlord needed a safe haven from American air power and had found it in the Hindu Kush mountain range like many before him.

The mountain was riddled with a labyrinth of spurs and draws, each lined with stone bunkers, caves, tunnel entrances, and mud huts. A nightmare for ground troops to enter, and almost assured that a blood bath would be the result.

The real objective was MIK’s underground bunker complex where he stored the opium before having it transported north to Tajikistan for entry into Russia and Europe. More importantly, in Deckard’s view, was that somewhere down there would be the high value targets themselves, MIK and his lieutenants.

These types of subterranean structures represented a strategic puzzle for military planners. An enemy base dug into a mountainside with two thousand feet of overburden on top of it was considered essentially invulnerable to any conventional munitions. Ruling out a nuclear strike, the next best option was to use cannon fodder, foreign troops by their rationale, in this case Samruk International.

Luckily, Deckard had a few tricks up his sleeve. A Gettysburg charge at a well dug in and defended enemy was the last thing on his mind.

Unfortunately, no one at Samruk or the brass at Bagram Airbase, had seen fit to enlighten him as to what the strategic value in all this was. MIK and his Islamic Jihad Faction sometimes trained and communicated with the Taliban and Al Qaeda but were really just a band of smugglers and bandits financed by drug money and extortion rackets.

More like Al Capone and less like Osama Bin Ladin.

Pushing negative thoughts aside, he used his time to study the surrounding terrain, rethinking and revising the plan of attack.

Deckard was still examining the microterrain features when a hand came down on his shoulder.

“Eh, boss,” Piet whispered. “Got Second and Third stacked up below.” The former Recce held one of Samruk’s Remington bolt action rifles and wore the web gear he had made for a job in Angola years ago.

“Good. Get the platoon sergeants and advisers up here.”

The South African disappeared below.

A minute later Kurt, Chuck, Frank, Adam, and Richie, along with sergeants Alibek and Kanat, followed Piet up the ladder.

“Here is the deal,” Deckard began. “Frank. Richie. You guys are with me. We continue the assault with First Platoon as planned. The rest of you look here.” He leaned over the edge of the roof and lit up the terrain with the IZLID, so they could all see with their night vision goggles.

“I want the rest of you to infiltrate, following this microterrain feature,” Deckard continued, highlighting a washout divot in the ground with the infrared laser. “You should be able to get down in that small wadi and follow it to the mountainside. Once you are in position, we have Mendez with the mortar section start hanging rounds.

“When you get a splash, that is the signal to assault. First Platoon from below, Second and Third apply fire and maneuver tactics as you see fit, walking mortar fire in front of you. Piet, you take your boys and position them whereever you can best support the assault.”

“Any comments?”

“Limit of advance?” Chuck asked.

“Line of exploitation,” Piet corrected.

“Same thing,” Deckard said. “The bunker entrance. I’ll mark it as soon as we arrive. Try not to get baited any further, use indirect fire instead.”

“Got it.”

“A little luck and the enemy will be so confused trying to fight in two directions at once that the assault will be over by the time they figure out how to react. How long do you need to get into position?”

“Three quarters of a hour,” Alibek said through his heavy accent.

“That’s when we initiate. See you on the other side.”

Rounding up the security element on the roof, Deckard and Alexander linked up with the rest of the platoon in the tunnel. He had one eye fixated to his watch. With the numbers ticking down, he picked up the pace, striding down the tunnel alongside the platoon sergeant.

Another seven hundred meters by his pace count, and the tunnel began to slant upwards. They were getting close. Deckard slowed down, now more wary of pressure plates and trip wires laid out as an early warning device.

The floor continued to ramp up at an angle as the two point men tiptoed forward. By nine hundred meters deep, the night vision tube was able to amplify a light source somewhere farther ahead. At first it was just a pin prick of light, but it began to glow brighter as they closed the distance. The escape tunnel came to an end at a stone wall, rocks piled one on top of the other leaving gaps between where the light showed through.

Flipping up his NVGs, Deckard squinted his eyes looking through the cracks. On the other side of the wall, he caught the silhouette of someone as they passed into a doorway. Beyond the wall was another corridor, this one lit up by a series of naked light bulbs wired along the ceiling. Entrances branched off the main corridor to other portions of the bunker.

The objective itself was a piece of cake. The Samruk commandos had been drilled over and over again on urban combat drills. Clearing hallways and rooms was nearly second nature to them at this point. The real problem would be breaching the wall in front of them.

Deckard did some calculations in his head. Taking the wall down manually would attract attention. The narrow confines of the tunnel would be turned into a shooting gallery. An explosive breach in the same narrow passage would probably kill them with over pressure.

The Samruk commander looked down at his watch.

Fuck.

* * *

Fuck, we’re cutting this close.

Staying low, the entire platoon moved like ducks in a row through the sandy bottom of the wadi. Afghanistan’s notoriously deadly terrain did little to dissuade the Central Asian mercenaries. The Kazakhs didn’t mind it at all, especially after being soaking wet and freezing in an underground passage.

Adam looked up from his watch.

They emptied out into a draw, leading right into the mountainside where the two platoons halted, looking a little confused at first. The two platoon sergeants got to work getting squad leaders to rally the men and lead them up the military crest of the draw, preventing them from silhouetting themselves against the night sky.

The former spy moved at the rear of the formation with Piet and his two snipers. The South African scanned his surroundings until he found what he was looking for. Tapping Adam on the shoulder, he pointed out a rocky outcropping to their flank that provided a field of fire over most of the mountainside.

Adam nodded and Piet separated from the formation with his two snipers. They would occupy the terrain feature to provide overwatch and precision fire when the time came.

The Kazakhs suddenly stopped in their tracks, causing Adam to refocus his NVGs to see what was going on up front. Now he saw what the problem was. Kurt Jager had halted the formation. Alibek was about to take them over the crest in a single file.

The fact that Kurt spoke adequate Russian was nothing short of a miracle on this mission. Adam could converse with Afghans fairly well but was completely lost with Kazakhs.

* * *

Scheisse.

Kurt looked up from his Omega watch and began giving orders under his breath. If Alibek had led the troops forward in a single file, they could easily have been mowed down by a single machine gunner. Having the entire formation execute a left face meant they would creep forward in a skirmish line to their assault positions.

If they were compromised and made contact, they would now be much better situated to return fire and maneuver a flanking element, if need be. Now on line and facing the objective, Kurt led the way as they crested over the ridge. The Kazakh sergeants were talented, but the truth was that the entire unit was out of their element on an operation such as this.

The former GSG-9 Counter-Terrorist stalked forward, attempting to keep a low profile against the moonlit sky. Struggling not to kick loose any more rocks and debris then absolutely necessary, he still couldn’t help but think they sounded like a herd of elephants. Cresting a second spur that ran down off the side of the mountain, the enemy fighting positions were now in view, and within range of small arms fire.

Giving the hand and arm signal to halt the troops, Kurt stopped the formation and brought Alibek up alongside him, pointing out enemy bunkers and mud huts sure to be occupied by guards. A few words of Russian passed between the two soldiers before Alibek moved back among his men, positioning them behind proper cover and pointing out priority targets.

Hearing footsteps behind him, he turned to see Kanat and Chuck moving both Weapons Squads with their PKM machine guns to the high ground in order to provide suppressive fire when things went hot. Apparently Piet had already broken off from the main element to scout out his options. Whatever the case Kurt trusted the judgment of a man who had been soldiering practically since he was born.

Watching the machine gun teams get into the prone position behind their guns with assistant gunners alongside, Kurt knew they had to get set in place fast. They were all running out of time.

Time and darkness.

* * *

“I just want you to know that there is fuck all I can do about it,” Richie said, pointing a finger in his chest. “I told you, you bloody Yank, this is shit det cord from India.”

“It was all that was available on short notice,” Deckard hissed, trying not to raise his voice. “You’ve improvised with worse in the past.”

“I just want you to know whose fault this is when it all goes pear shaped.”

“Hurry the fuck up and get it set.”

Turning away from the breach point, Deckard walked down the line of Kazakhs stacked in the tunnel. Three squads now broken down into six assault teams to clear rooms, weapons squad would secure the halls. Simple, or so it seemed.

“Frank?”

“Yeah?”

“Where is that field telephone? I need to talk to Mendez.”

Frank hooked a thumb back in the opposite direction down the tunnel. “Back that way five hundred meters or so, I think,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders.

“What the fuck?”

“Shit, man, that spool only has so much wire. We ran out, hooked up the phone, and left it there as the next best thing.”

“Holy shit, you didn’t feel it was pertinent to tell me that?” This is like dealing with SEALs, Deckard thought.

“Well, it is now.”

“Alright, whatever, run down there and tell Mendez to fire on the target reference points in exactly seven minutes.”

“Yes, Massa,” Frank answered, setting the timer on his watch. “I’ll stand by until he hangs the rounds then catch up with you.”

“See you then.”

Deckard walked away shaking his head. This is the price you pay when SATCOM and FM radios are hopelessly back-ordered and you have to resort to World War Two era communications.

* * *

“Mida, mida!”

Mendez turned around, recognizing his name in Kazakh dialect. As per common sense, the worst soldier in the mortar section got assigned to monitor the field telephone. This guy couldn’t lay on a mortar system if his life depended on it. Thankfully, the rest of the section was full of fast learners.

“Yeah,” Mendez said, holding the receiver to his ear, fighting the urge to light up a cigarette.

“Hey, its Frank.”

“What’s up?”

“The boss wants you to fire up the TRPs in, hold on,” Frank paused for a moment, “exactly three minutes.”

“No shit?”

“No shit.”

“Okay, better keep your head down.”

“It’s not me you need to worry about.”

Mendez passed the telephone back to his make-a-wish foundation soldier and consulted his Fire Direction Center board.

“Gun One.”

All three gun teams jumped to their feet, it was time to work.

“Five rounds, HE Quick. Deflection-”

* * *

“Three o’ clock, three hundred meters,” Piet whispered, one eye fixed on his target through the magnification of his Leopold scope. “Three boogers behind the stone wall. AKs. Looks like a DShK mounted behind the wall as well.”

“Da,” Nikita and Askar answered in unison.

The Kazakh snipers lay side by side the South African watching, unblinking through their sights. With the proper night vision not having arrived in Astana in time, they were reduced to duct taping the standard PVS-14 NVG tubes to their sniper scopes to see at night. It was primitive, but effective.

“Quarter value wind, right to left. Hold a heavy quarter on him.”

They breathed shallow breaths.

In the distance they could see the insurgents up close and personal through ten-power scopes, watch them laugh amongst themselves and smoke cheap Pakistani cigarettes. They’d spent weeks training, and now Piet would observe his students under combat conditions. No one would shed a tear for dead terrorists, but it would be a blow to his ego if they missed the shot.

“Steady,” he whispered, not expecting a reply. By now they were focused, breathing and body position already relaxed. They watched their targets and waited.

Somewhere behind them, Piet heard the retort of three mortar tubes as 82mm high explosive rounds shot into the air on trajectory for enemy positions to their front. Through the green tint of the night vision, they saw the reactions of the insurgents as they looked back and forth for the source of the distant sound.

Piet turned the knob on his Motorola radio. Open channel traffic would be used, once things went overt. If he remembered the correct data from his days as a young gun bunny in the SADF, he estimated a time of flight of about twenty-five seconds.

He had to adjust the knob as the Kazakh squad leaders jumped the gun by a few seconds and Russian chatter came over the net. Then he realized he might be a few seconds off as the HE rounds slammed into enemy positions on the mountainside, detonating as they made contact with the ground, one after the other.

Nikita and Askar gently squeezed the triggers on their rifles. Piet watched their targets disappear behind the wall, impacts to their chests knocking them backwards. Before they could transition to secondary targets, the support by fire line opened up, muzzle flashes lighting up the night as six PKMs went cyclic.

The entire mountainside was lit ablaze.

The action continues in Chapter Eleven.

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