“The target area
is well defined and isolated. These buildings here, command
post, barracks, small arms range, vehicle storage and what
we believe is an explosives lab, or possibly a class room
for explosives manufacturing or handling. The only other
structure in the area is here, on the other side of this
“Now, we haven’t been able
to establish a direct connection between this structure and
the camp. It may have no connection whatever. It may be an
auxiliary command post, a secure storage for chemical or
biological agents. It could just be an abandoned structure.
Its size, much larger than any ordinary farm house or Shepherd’s
hut—some seventeen meters wide and nearly forty meters long—argues
that it must be for some use. We don’t know. But in the spirit
of leaving no stone unturned, we will raid it along with
the rest of the camp. Just so that we don’t find out five
years down the road that Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership was
sleeping there while we raided their kid’s scout camp.”
“And that’s our part in this
mission. We will investigate this structure and take appropriate
action while the rest of the battalion deals with the main
“Ok, fellas, this is a for-real
deployment, so no fuck-ups. I want you each to check over
your field gear. Then squad leaders get checked by the assistant
squad leaders, then the two of them each check every man
in the squad. We’re going to Sudan, not Vietnam, so no Bragg
green anything. I want everything dressed in black and tan.
Most of you did Iraq, this time do it right!” The Sergeant
Major frowned at his troops, then nodded at the platoon sergeant.
“You heard the Sergeant Major!
Now, get it done. Platoon leaders make sure all your men
bring plenty of sunblock. SPF30 or better and yes, that means
even the black guys! We folk of color burn under the sun
as well as white folk, don’t let anybody tell you different.
Make sure everyone has extra socks, socks save as many lives
“Hey, Smitty,” Private First
Class Jones whispered to his assistant squad leader. “Why
do we need sunblock for a night raid?”
“Because we’ll spend a whole
day waiting to go in some sandy, sunny shithole with no shade—more
if the op gets delayed. Then afterwards, if we are lucky
they’ll fly us back to some other shitty sand pit and debrief
“And if we’re unlucky,” put
in Private Ortiz from the next bunk over, “they’ll fly us
out to sea and debrief us on some stinking tin can like we
was marines or something.”
“Ships aren’t that bad, Ortiz.
Less bugs than a lot of places they could stick us. I hope
it’s not a ship debriefing anyways. They’ll most likely pull
us out to Kuwait or Oman. Liberty in Oman’s pretty nice,
“How about women?” Jones asked. “They
got nice women over there?”
“Hey, man, you want to find
yourself a lady, you’d do better looking around here at Bragg,” the
corporal answered. “They catch a woman over there fooling
around with a bunch of GI’s, they stone her.”
Jones emptied out his pack
and started to sort through utility uniforms. “Hell, Smitty,
I got a woman here. Fact is I got a couple of ‘em. That don’t
mean I don’t want to keep my eyes open for the opportunity
where ever I go.”
“Jonesy, what you gonna do
when your wife finds out about all them women you’re always
making time with?” Ortiz tossed out a green poncho liner
and began scrounging around in his pack for a replacement. “She’s
gonna cut your nuts off some night, man.”
“Ain’t like that, man.” Jones
replied, “We got it all worked out okay.”
“That being the case, Jonesy,” Sergeant
Troubridge said as he came from across the room and started
tossing bottles of sunblock and insect repellant from out
of a box he was carrying, one each to a man. “If you don’t
come back from this one, I’ll be sure to come around and
comfort your widow.”
“Make sure you bring along
a couple of the squad, sergeant. Judging from the way she
is whenever I get back from a deployment, she’ll take a heap
of comforting.” Jones replied with an easy smile on his face.
“Jesus, Jonesy! Talking about
your woman like that!” Ortiz exclaimed.
“You got your Latin machismo,
braw, and I got my thing.”
“You meet all kinds of freaks
in the fucking army.” Ortiz concluded.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell, amigo,” put
“Fuck you, corporal.” Ortiz
offered a two fingered salute.
“Jesus, it’s hotter than hell
here!” Ortiz pulled at his BDU blouse to fan a little more
of the hot desert air across his chest.
“I have it on good authority
that hell is cold, private.” Sergeant Troubridge said. “You’ve
never done a winter up on the DMZ in Korea, have you? There’s
worse things than a little sunshine.”
“Sergeant!” Lieutenant Armstrong
called over. “They’ll be bringing in the choppers any minute.
Make sure everyone’s gear is ready, weapons checked; ammo
distributed, and have the men geared up and ready to go in
“Right, sir.” The sergeant
nodded, and then turned to the troops. “All right, you guys,
we’re going out soon to earn our munificent pay.”
The incoming helicopters roared
The dust from the helicopter
as it lifted off scarcely differed from that already filling
the dead-dry desert valley as chilly wind blew down the valley,
carrying almost as much crap as the chopper had kicked up.
The target, a dilapidated mud-brick building that looked
as if it had been here since Moses led the Jews out of Egypt,
was eighty meters up the narrowing valley and around the
At the Ell-tee’s hand signal,
Martinez and Smitty set out along the flattish scar the op
planners had taken for a road. From up close it was a sorry
excuse for a goat path and the platoon noted no signs of
any vehicle traffic whatsoever.
As far as Lt. Parker was concerned,
that was all to the good. Maybe that meant there’d be no
one to shoot at them this time. Not to mention no nerve agents
to deal with. Or booby traps.
Scratch that, there
are always booby traps in these desolate shit hole places.
Even when there are no people. And thinking any other
way will get my people killed.
On his signal the platoon moved
out in good order. Night vision showed no one on the way
in, and no sentries, although it was impossible to see if
the building hid any occupants. Mud brick, no windows. Huge
structure really, shaped like a half buried brick, doors
in the middle of the long side and the short side facing
The building looked as old
as the desert, but it still had doors. In most places, abandoned
structures had such things looted. First squad fell out to
form a security perimeter as per plan and second squad crouched
along the short end of the building to either side of the
door. Lt. Parker joined second squad, leaving the first in
the competent hands of his platoon sergeant. A quick pass
with a metal detector wand revealed only metal hinges. The
door had a rope pull latch.
On the Lieutenant’s signal,
the squad entered like a hurricane coming ashore. The building’s
interior was black as pitch. No light whatsoever. Infrared
projectors on the sides of their helmets illuminated small
circles of empty dirty rooms through the goggles each squad
member wore. Just like an effing science fiction movie, Lt
Parker thought, which is where the army got the idea.
The scopes didn’t show dick
in the first few rooms, but Parker held out for a full sweep
of the first floor before allowing the men to employ flashlights
and glow sticks, double checking with real light. A whole
lot of nothing. Just dirt, totally abandoned.
Parker got to the center of
the building. Smitty had his goggles on and his weapon pointed
into a dark, narrow doorway, his body mostly behind the wall.
In a half whisper, Parker asked, “What do you got, Corporal?”
“Stairs going up, Sir.”
On the encrypted squad circuit
Parker asked, “Anyone else have any stairs? Count off and
“One, no stairs, no nothing.”
“Two, all clear, no stairs.”
It took only thirty seconds. “Looks
like you got the only way up, Smitty. Hold on.” Parker switched
back to platoon push. “Sergeant Troubridge, what’s your status?”
“All clear here, sir. We can
hear the rest of the company out here. They’re making a hell
of a racket.”
“This place looks empty so
far, Sergeant, but it’s built like a fortress. I want to
knock it down anyway. You get the demo charges set up, all
of them, both in here and outside. And make sure they are
tamped in right. I’m taking the squad upstairs.”
“Roger sir. You check out the
upstairs, we set up the demo.”
Parker tapped Peters and Smitty,
sending them up first, then followed with the rest of the
squad, less Jonesy who stayed at the bottom of the stairway.
He was nominally the comm tech, and usually stayed right
by Lt. Parker’s side, but he was a good man and Parker wanted
one watching the exit. And to keep communications running—the
radio was picking up interference as they climbed the stairs.
Smitty stopped at the top of
the stairs, and looked for a moment, then pulled his goggles
up and looked again. He signaled for the Lieutenant. Parker
came up and followed his pointing hand. With the night vision
goggles on, the entire side of the room looked like interference,
snow, like a TV not tuned to a station. What Parker saw when
he took off his goggles was a weird green glow that dimly
lit the entire space, coming out from an open door in the
center of the wall.
Parker checked the rest of
the space. It was roughly a third the size of the building
and as empty as the downstairs. Another door stood opposite
the glowing one.
Parker sent Peters and Wilson
to check on the other door. They were out of sight for a
second when his ear piece spoke in Peters’ voice drowned
in static. Parker walked down the steps a few feet and keyed
his microphone. “Say again, Peters.”
“Lieutenant, we got signs of
habitation. Sleeping pallet, old clothes, and signs of cooking.
It’s recent, but not very. I’d say earlier in the week.”
“Ok, Peters. Finish your sweep
and come back us up. We’re going to check out the lights.”
“Roger, sir. Be there in a
Lt. Parker waited until the
two men emerged from the door, then tapped Smitty. The two
of them sprinted quietly to either side of the glowing doorway,
goggles off. The lieutenant slung his rifle and pulled his
side arm, a nine millimeter Berretta. He signaled the corporal
to go in first. Smitty nodded and charged through the doorway.
At first, nothing happened.
No firing, nothing. Then Parker heard something, something
wrong. He darted into the room, his automatic held stiff-armed
in front of him.
Inside he found a scene from
some pulp writer’s vision of hell. Smitty stood frozen in
front of a stone table. On the table sat a huge book, like
an atlas, its pages covered with weird diagrams that seemed
to be the source of the glow.
Behind the table was…Parker
didn’t have a name to go with the thing. It was moving, slopping
like a huge sack of rotting gelatin. Dripping clear, plasma-like
fluid, it shifted and reared upward. Translucent, watery
eyes and swollen, obscene suckers unevenly covered its surface.
It stank like rancid butter and rotting meat. Inside it,
clearly visible, a withered naked man sat in lotus, his yellow
skin and milky eyes showing through the…thing.
Training took over, and the
lieutenant leveled his pistol toward the thing’s center of
mass and fired as fast as he could pull the trigger. A second
later, Peters was at his side, firing on full auto, raking
the thing from one side to the other. The mass toppled over
Parker’s pistol locked back,
empty, and he shoved it into its holster. Grabbing Smitty
by the harness, he reached past him and flung the book shut,
shouting “Out! Out! Out!” Peters backed through the door,
out of the now-dark room. Parker was on his heels, dragging
Smitty in one hand with the book clutched in the other.
From inside the room came a
loud slithering as if a horde of slugs was descending upon
some defenseless garden. “Grenade!” Parker shouted. “Now!”
Wilson pulled the pin off a
standard high explosive grenade and tossed it under handed
into the room. The concussion knocked the squad off their
feet and filled the room with a fog of dirt from the ceiling.
The lieutenant listened for half a second before he realized
he could no longer hear.
Looking over the squad, he
remembered that Smitty was carrying the pyrotechnics, normally
used to destroy enemy munitions. The corporal was still staring
blindly where he’d been left. The other men had their flashlights
out. Parker pulled the white phosphorus grenade from Smitty’s
harness, pulled the pin and threw it like a football through
the door where that thing was.
“Out, out, out! Clear the building,” he
shouted as it detonated, casting the men’s shadows against
the wall with its piercing white light. Parker scooped up
the book and turned to herd the men downstairs when an eerie,
high pitched shriek came out of the other room, cutting through
the deafness left by the grenade and sounding like ten thousand
crickets crying out in pain. The men were going down, dragging
Smitty with them. Parker followed at a run.
On the level below he thought
to key his microphone, “Clear the building! Clear the building!
Sergeant Troubridge, are the charges set?”
“We’re set and ready to blow,
“Squad leaders, count heads.
Get your people back to the perimeter; make sure everyone’s
“First squad, all accounted
for and clear to perimeter.”
“Second squad, reply. Dammit!” Smitty
had second squad. “Sergeant Troubridge, get a count on second
“Second squad accounted for
and clear, sir.”
“Blow the damned building!”
The bottom floor of the building
turned to dust under the well placed influence of Composition
Four. Sgt. Troubridge got the company in order and moving
to the pick up point. Lt. Parker went to check on Smitty.
Smitty was standing on his
own, but seemed unaware of anything around him. Gomez, the
medic, was leading him. He shambled along, staring ahead
and drooling, barely able to keep pace with the platoon.
“He’s in shock, sir,” Gomez
explained. “They’ll be able to bring him around, as soon
as we get him to a real hospital.”
Lt. Parker wasn’t so sure about
that. He still held the book clenched in his hand. He’d hand
it over to the Intel guys. He wondered what they’d make of
“What the hell happened in
there, sir?” Sgt. Troubridge asked.
“I’m not sure, Sergeant. We’ll
go over it all in the debriefing. Let’s just get our men
to the LZ and get them the hell out of here.”
As the troops filed out of
the valley, Private Ortiz fell back to walk next to the lieutenant. “Jesus,
sir. What happened to Smitty? He’s walking around like a
zombie from a bad movie.”
“He’s just in shock, Ortiz.
You’re a buddy of his, help him keep up. Lead him along,
don’t let him fall back. He’ll be alright once we get him
to the docs.” I hope, Lieutenant Armstrong added to
“What the hell was all that,
sir?” Jonesy asked, “I’ve seen some shit, here and there.
But what the fuck was that?”
“Save it for the debrief, private.
I’m going to tell it straight, turn this in, “He held up
the book still clutched in his left hand, “and kick the whole
ball of turds upstairs. This whole thing is way above my
pay grade, but just between you and me, Jonesy, I think we
done stuck our noses in some shit where they do not belong.
You tell them straight up what you saw, then you don’t say
shit until higher on tells you too, and then you say what
they tell you. Because frankly, I do not think we really
want to know just what the hell went down here, really.”
As the troops in front of them
rounded the last bend and the waiting helicopter, the Lieutenant
added, “But I can’t wait to find out what those weenies at
Intel make out of all this.”