text by Dan Marovich
This mountain seems to keep growing, Sergeant Fox thought to himself. Down below him, his men tirelessly ascended on their hands and knees through the ankle deep mud, often times using the buttstocks of their rifles as anchors in the deluge. Each of them was soaked in sweat, and the effort of yesterday evidenced upon their uniforms in the form of salt stains ringing their collars and sleeves. Each of them was panting with exertion; the hundred pound packs on their backs made them look almost comical in the mid-day heat. Sergeant Fox sighed, laughed to himself, and then looked back towards the summit.
“We’re almost there, boys,” he whispered.
It was day twenty of their thirty day patrol. The mission was called ‘Operation Avalanche’ and was designed to cut off the routes of egress to the extremists, mercenaries, and never-do-well’s coming in from across the Pakistani border. The first week they had seen positive results, in the form of captured bomb-makers and their mad scientist cohorts; they were easy enough to identify. Every bomb-maker had the hallmarks of a failed experiment; sometimes it was burns down their wrists, sometimes it was shrapnel scars across their face, but usually, it was missing knuckles or missing fingers. But after that first week, the fruits of their labor began to dry up, and Operation Avalanche began to feel more and more like an exercise in futility. Each night, they somehow managed to sleep a little bit less than the night before. Currently, they were down to four hours of sleep a night, in hour long intervals, when they weren’t on overwatch guarding against what might be lurking in the darkness.
Tonight, however, they had an obtainable objective: one of the men they caught crossing the border provided intel on an Al Qaeda safe-house atop one of the tallest peaks in the Gardez Mountains. In the basement of this safe-house was a supposed cache of mortar rounds, rockets, artillery shells and millions of rounds of DshK ammunition. If they were able to capture this safe-house, it would be a huge victory for Alpha Company, and provide bragging rights instead of what had slowly become a shit sandwich of a mission that no one wanted to eat. Several hours later, Sergeant Fox and his ten soldiers arrived at the first false summit of the ridgeline, the rally point for their platoon.
No one said anything; words had become a lost art after the first week or so, in which the lack of sleep had given everyone a touch of ferality and almost instantaneous bursts of anger at the slightest provocations. Fox sat behind them in the middle of the formation atop his rucksack, each man facing outwards, creating a defensive perimeter.
About an hour later, the radio attached to Sergeant Fox’s armor crackled to life. *Three-Three, this is Three-Six, we are in position on the neighboring ridge. We got eyes on you and the objective. What’s your status, over?*
Sergeant Fox unclipped the radio, took his helmet off, and scrubbed his brow before answering. “Three-Six, this is Three-Three, we are good to Charlie-Mike on your go, over.”
*So you’re good to proceed, outcopy over.*
“Roger that, Three-Six.”
*Good. Fifteen mikes ‘til we move. We’re gonna move fast, so be ready – sun should be down, so mount your NODs. Over and out.*
“Alright boys, get your NODs on,” Sergeant Fox called out. “Left to right.”
The first soldier on the left side of the firing line dropped his weapon and reached to one of the pouches connected to his armored harness, and withdrew his night vision goggles. Moments later, they were secured to the front of his helmet, at which point he nodded to the man down the line, where the exercise repeated.
*Three-Three, this is Three-Six, we’re moving time now, over.*
“Yep, roger that Three-Six. Enroute: over and out,” Sergeant Fox remounted his radio. “Alright boys, it’s time to kick rocks. Leave the rucksacks here. Let’s go.”
An hour later, they reached the perimeter of the mountaintop safe-house. A sparse wood-line of something that looked like sage and dried up pines provided a degree of camouflage as they approached. Each soldier took a position behind boulders and tree-trunks facing the lone structure atop the peak and waited.
“Three-Six, this is Three-Three, we’re in position,” Sergeant Fox whispered into his handset.
*Three-Three, move into the yard,* the lieutenant replied. That was all Sergeant Fox needed.
Giving the hand signal, Sergeant Fox’s first team stood up, rifles at their shoulders, and approached the safe-house’s back gate, lining up along its right side; a wooden door consisting of logs cut in half with a roughly attached latch on the inside. Looking back towards Sergeant Fox, they gave the signal that the gate was breachable; Sergeant Fox grinned. Reaching over his shoulder, he withdrew the twelve gauge shotgun from its shoulder sheath, and racked the slide. The second hand signal was given, and the remaining team moved forward, stacking on the left side of the gate. Sergeant Fox took position at the front.
“Three, two, one,” Sergeant Fox whispered a moment before the shotgun belched fire and flame, punching a hole through the wood of the gate and blowing the latch apart into bits of twisted metal; in a single fluid movement, the shotgun slid back into its sheath. The first team pushed into the courtyard, weapons at the ready, bounding through the space like wolves inside a sheep’s pen. The second team moved in just as liquidly, adjacent to the first; their eyes were on the windows, Sergeant Fox moving in behind them.
The courtyard stank of goat shit and pickled urine. Rags of cloth fluttered uselessly in the untrimmed grass that grew in inconsistent patches along the unpaved earth. A doll made of straw and frayed yarn watched silently with buttoned eyes, propped up against the backdoor frame of the building.
Those motherfuckers brought kids here, Sergeant Fox thought.
The courtyard cleared of danger, Sergeant Fox pointed at the backdoor of the house; the first team moved back into a stack on its right side. Sergeant Fox then gave the hand signal for the second team to stay put and keep the courtyard contained. Every soldier acknowledged seamlessly, their former exhaustions extinguished and replaced with nervous excitement.
*Three-Three, take the house. Rules of engagement: Capture if possible, kill if necessary.*
Sergeant Fox gave the command; the leader of the first team stepped back and put a boot to the backdoor which exploded inwards, shattering something made of glass inside. The soldiers poured inwards into the unlit building, their night vision goggles giving their eyes and faces an eerie green tinted glow. A staircase downwards was located; Sergeant Fox gave the order to descend. A door barred their entrance to the basement; it was promptly kicked in. Ten feet from the door, a man dressed in a white robe sat behind a desk, dimly lit by a failing lantern, cried out in sudden alarm. He stood, and turned to face Sergeant Fox and his men as they stalked into the room.
Time seemed to dilate, slow down. Sergeant Fox didn’t recognize what he was doing as it happened; he saw the man and without thinking moved forward to engage, the training unconsciously taking over. Three steps away: Fox’s eyes darted to the man’s hands; he was holding something unidentifiable – gun? Knife? Weapon of some kind? – and then looked up to the man’s expression: surprised, afraid, and panicked. Two steps away: Fox began to scream. The words weren’t chosen, but the growl in his throat gave voice to the threat of his rifle. One step away: the man began to raise his hands upwards, towards Sergeant Fox; Sergeant Fox responded by igniting the infrared laser attached to his rifle which aimed his weapon in the darkness, visible only through the night vision goggles he wore. The man made to rear back, potentially to fight, when Sergeant Fox jabbed the barrel of his M-4 through the man’s ivories, which exploded like tempered glass. A fountain of red pumped out of his mouth, alongside jagged shards of broken teeth. The man collapsed onto the ground holding his face, writhing around in the slick of his blood. Suddenly, an overhead light turned on. Each soldier flipped their night vision goggles up.
“Status,” Sergeant Fox screamed. Each of the soldiers communicated that they were “up”. Fox nodded, leaned forward, and grabbed the man by his collar. “Get the fuck up, shit bag, it’s time to work.” The man was still screaming bloody murder, spitting up chunks of meat and teeth as Sergeant Fox wrenched him to his feet.
“Hey Sarge, you’d better look at this,” cried one of the soldiers. Sergeant Fox looked to where the soldier was pointing; it was the weapons cache they were looking for, all done up in neat piles of potential destruction.
“Well loddy-fucking daaah,” Sergeant Fox grinned, then leaned forward and into the face of the basement dweller. “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do!” Sergeant Fox produced a pair of flex-cuffs and the man moaned, still holding the jagged slice of his mouth together, and began to mutter pleas in Pashtu through his fingers – one of which ended at the middle knuckle.
“Behold: the Graveyard of Empires”, a sign read just above the concertina wire of the compound’s exterior wall.
Sergeant Fox sat atop the concrete sandbagged bunker, smoking a cigar. To his right sat the company doctor, Doc Flannigan, similarly smoking a cigar, while sipping from a cup of something that looked like apple juice but smelled like jet fuel. The ice clinked harmlessly inside his glass. Both Sergeant Fox and Doc Flannigan were absorbed in the relaxation provided by their vices, and stared into the dimmed horizon of Forward Operating Base Salerno, Khowst Province, Afghanistan. Each had yet to take a shower despite the mad rush to clean one’s self that everyone exhibited after the conclusion of Operation Avalanche; for them, the moment of calm afforded them the opportunity to enjoy the naked pleasure of their poisons, which the mission had precluded them from.
Neither of them said a word.
Overhead, an apache gunship circled, the beating of its rotors whipping sound across the nearby mountains like miniature thunderclaps. There was dust, but neither Sergeant Fox nor Doc Flannigan gave a damn; they were dirty, and more dirt didn’t matter – it was all the same to them. Beside Sergeant Fox sat his electronic leash: the radio he had to carry at all times, which chirped with static exuberance every so often like some kind of palsied bird. The sound of diesel engines began to fade into the distance as soldiers finished the process of refueling and refitting their vehicles, tirelessly preparing for the next patrol out. The air tasted like melting copper; somewhere, a burn-pit was destroying the never-ending accumulation of plastics and human feces.
Booted footsteps approached from behind at high speed; Sergeant Fox sighed and looked over his shoulder. A private wearing a clean and dry uniform stood at parade rest, a rifle slung behind his shoulders. A barrel plug adorned the flash eliminator of the private’s rifle, covering the muzzle; Sergeant Fox sneered.
“What the fuck do you want, kid?” Sergeant Fox turned back around to face his horizon, which had begun to purple with the sunset. It was beautiful through the wash of the heat radiation. He took a drag from his maduro.
“You’re needed at the TOC, Sergeant Fox,” the private responded.
“What the fuck for?”
“There’s an on-going attack on the Green House,” the private explained.
“Right now, sergeant.”
Sergeant Fox groaned. He looked to his right. Doc Flannigan continued to stare at the horizon and smiled as he sipped his bourbon. There was a darkness in those eyes, Sergeant Fox noted, a hollow quality that he hadn’t seen before. He studied a moment longer before discarding the notion of saying something.
“Yeah, fuck you too, Doc,” Sergeant Fox said as he dismounted from the top of the bunker and flicked the remains of his cigar towards his feet. Doc Flannigan laughed as Sergeant Fox was led away.
The Green House was the code word associated with the border outpost the Special Forces had set up with the help of the local militia groups. It was staffed primarily of grizzled veterans from the Soviet Aggression who knew how to fight, men specifically chosen by the green berets stationed nearby at Chapman Airbase to hold the mountains. The Green House sat on top of the most optimal route into Afghanistan from Pakistan, which was directly in the shadows of the Gardez Mountain’s tallest peaks. Without the Green House looking down onto this route, an army of any size could easily slip into Afghani territory and wreak all sorts of havoc before returning across the border, protected by legalities and politics.
The TOC hummed with the throb of dedicated electronics and communication equipment. Thick power cables lay tangled like mismanaged cobwebs carelessly strewn about across the floor, braided with neon yellow duct-tape so that you noticed them right before you tripped. Men sat hunched behind desks crowded with computer monitors and projector screens with thick, bulbous headphones insulating them from the din of reality just behind them. The smell of unwashed bodies and calcified sweat filled the humid air. Endless radio communications flooded the remaining airspace with orders and reports. The private waved Sergeant Fox forward and into the room; in a smaller alcove, Afghani voices were screaming through a different radio network, automatic gunfire and detonations blasting in its background.
“Are you Sergeant Fox?” an anonymous voice called out.
Sergeant Fox looked around, seeking the voice’s origin. “Roger that,” he said to the crowd of seated bodies before him. A hand connected to the voice waved; three rows down, a short, fat man in Air Force fatigues stood up and nodded to Sergeant Fox. Sergeant Fox narrowed his eyes and approached.
“Why am I here?” Sergeant Fox demanded.
“You’re the only squad who’s air-assault qualified in your platoon, and I hear you are the most mission ready. Is that true?”
“Yeah, my boys and I are ready to go,” he said.
“Alright then. Wheels up in fifteen. Your commanding officer is already rounding up your men. Head to Red Tarmac when you’re ready, the Blackhawk will be waiting for you and your boys. Mission brief in the seats.”
Sergeant Fox nodded, turned around, and ran for the door.
When Sergeant Fox got to the tarmac his helicopter was on, his men were already there, looking about as pissed off as humanly possible. Thirty days of nigh-endless bullshit only to end up on the QRF – quick reaction force – was a slap in the face. Sergeant Fox had the sneaking suspicion that his lieutenant had volunteered them for this mission; he’d have to find out later. The Blackhawk they were about to board began to rev up its engines in preparation, deafening Sergeant Fox’s squad. Fox gave the hand signal; each man donned his hearing protection. He gave another hand signal and the weapons checks began. The third check ensured every soldier had each piece of their vital equipment: NODs, grenades, water and food. The last hand signal he gave was to board the Blackhawk; when all of the men were inside, the rotors began to turn. The pilot stood offset his helicopter, finishing a cigarette, before reaching out to shake Sergeant Fox’s hand.
“Hey buddy! You Sergeant Fox, right?”
“Roger that,” Sergeant Fox shook the pilot’s hand. “What should I call you?”
The pilot grinned; “Call sign is Archangel; I’m from the 7th aviation wing,” nodded, and climbed aboard. Stenciled on his helmet were a lion, a leopard and a wolf, all three of which were snapping at each other in a circular pattern. “But you can call me Vee.”
A minute later, each soldier was buckled into his harnesses, and each wore the headsets associated with his seat. Sergeant Fox adjusted his mouthpiece. “Radio check,” he whispered. A stream of, “Check,” and “You’re good”’s came through in reply. “Good copy,” Sergeant Fox said, right before yawning. What the fuck, he thought to himself. He hadn’t even felt it coming. His men had seen it; each had looked away. Quietly, Sergeant Fox reached into one of his harness pouches and withdrew a tiny bottle of Tobasco that came with almost every MRE the army offered, dripped some onto his fingers, and then wiped his face just below his eyes. The burn of the vinegar scratched at the lines of his softer skin, but he knew it would keep him awake.
“Alright, fellas, listen up: mission brief!” Vee crooned over the internal radio network of the helicopter. “The Green House is being hit by a company sized element and are pinned down. We are gonna drop you boys off alongside some of the S.F. fellers and get you some, how does that sound?” Everyone cheered. “I like the sound of that,” the pilot continued, “Okay! We are gonna hit Chapman Airbase first and then take you to the fight. Time on target is estimated at twenty minutes, roger?” Everyone roger’d back. “Alright boys, sit tight. Here we go!” The helicopter lurched to life, jumping off the pavement and into the barren sky above.
The landscape of the dustbowl that was Khowst might have been beautiful, once. Sergeant Fox looked out from the nest that was the coupled minigun, pillboxed on the port flank of the Blackhawk. Maybe it was the navy blue glow of the evening sky reflecting off the silica-infused, talcum-powdered quality of the dirt and dust on the ground, or the vibrant green of the weeds that grew like tiny hairs in random patches of depressed topography, Sergeant Fox couldn’t decide, but the land seemed to beg for a positive opinion that wasn’t forthcoming. Maybe once, but not now, Sergeant Fox thought. Here, along the curb of one of the few paved highways undulating beneath them was the fractured crater of a roadside bomb; there, was the blasted bowl of a fixed-wing air-to-surface ordinance explosion, which consumed half of a dilapidated building. He wanted to care but couldn’t; the destruction was too absolute. “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me; the carriage held but just ourselves, and immortality,” Sergeant Fox whispered.
“What was that, Sarge?” One of his soldiers looked over at him, confused.
“Never mind, private,” Sergeant Fox answered.
He was still lost in thought when the helicopter suddenly dipped in elevation, turning a hard right on its axis. “We are gonna land and refuel! Time until takeoff: ten minutes! Deboard if you want, it’s on your sergeant,” Vee screamed; Sergeant Fox looked to his men and nodded his approval. A moment later, the Blackhawk landed roughly and began to power down. When the rotors finished turning, Sergeant Fox sighed, took off his headset, and nodded to everyone. Everyone unbuckled and climbed out of the helicopter. Vee was still fussing with his seatbelt harness when Sergeant Fox leaned into his cockpit.
“Hey, what channel you guys on for this? I wanna listen while we wait.”
Vee gave him the frequency, and Sergeant Fox adapted his radio to it. “Thanks,” he said as he worked. As soon as the frequency was keyed in, all hell broke loose; Sergeant Fox turned down the volume to his earpiece so that his men wouldn’t overhear.
*Ghost Four, this is Ghost One, get your fucking team on the perimeter wall now!*
*60mm mortars are black on ammo; I repeat, black on ammo! Switching to 120’s! 120’s are red on ammo! Danger close fire missions inbound!*
*Claymores are gone on the west wall! They are through the fucking wire! Where the fuck is our air support?!*
*Ghost Six, this is Reaper One, I’m working on fixed-wing support. We got one Charlie on station and possibly an Alpha!*
“Jesus Christ,” Sergeant Fox muttered to himself, sitting down hard on the rim of the Blackhawk’s deck. The shit was not only hitting the fan, but every surface of the misbegotten office. At least the Air Force JTAC was responding; successfully directing air support in the midst of a firefight without friendly fire would be miraculous – especially given the possibility of working with two planes instead of just one.
“Hey Sarge, check it out..!” Sergeant Fox looked up and saw all of his soldiers pointing at the sky above: an A-10 Warthog scrambled through the air, acrobatically twisting and turning as if through some invisible aerial obstacle course. It disappeared into the evening sky towards the Green House. “Turn your NODs on, you can see this shit from here!”
Sergeant Fox donned his helmet, and tipped his night vision goggles forward. Immediately, lances of light began to arc outwards from the top of a mountain maybe five miles away, tearing through the sky like unexploding fireworks; he was surprised he could see the tracer fire from here. About a dozen different streams of gunfire had become visible, and only now had his ears adjusted to the environment enough that he could hear the report of the heavier guns pounding away like arrhythmic drumbeats. Claymore and grenade detonations scored the mountaintop in brief flashes of light, followed closely by distant roars.
“Sarge, we need to get up there,” one of his soldiers said.
We need to get up there, Sergeant Fox repeated in his head. Suddenly, a yawn began to form in his lungs; just as quickly, he turned his face and hid it. When he turned back around and looked at the mountaintop, he froze. He could see the tumble of the tracer rounds slapping through their machineguns, slamming into rocks that sent them skyward; he witnessed the flash of mines and grenades exploding, killing or maiming the men on the ground; he listened to it all through the panicked transmissions of the Special Forces troops still electrically echoing through his radio’s headset. His breath caught in his lungs and his eyes began to burn, having forgotten to blink as he continued to stare. We need to get up there, his mind repeated again, but when his eyes finally failed and he turned away to clear them, he noticed his gloved hands were trembling. He balled each into fists, and the shakes in his fingers disappeared.
*Ghost Six, this is Reaper One! Get your men behind cover! Alpha inbound on strafe run, west to east!* Moments later, the sound of the A-10’s fury whipped down across the valley. The warthog’s main weapon, a 30mm autocannon, screamed.
It was such a powerful weapon that the recoil generated by its bursts of fire – which were shorter than three seconds, because any longer would melt the weapon’s seven barrels – was enough to point the plane skyward if the aircraft wasn’t angled correctly; the entire plane was built around the cannon. Each shot was indistinguishable from the last; through the night vision goggles, the soldiers saw a solid line of rippling light – hundreds of glowing incendiary rounds - generated from a point in the sky rain downwards, followed by the long throb of the weapon’s throaty growl. A long collection of explosions followed, covering the mountainside in light and debris. Through the NODs, several of the soldiers saw entire trees uprooted and flung cartwheeling through the air.
Each of Sergeant Fox’s soldiers cheered.
*Reaper One, this is Gungnir, on station, your orbit. I got guns on your position: copy danger close fire mission? Over.*
*Gungnir, this is Reaper One, what’s your payload?*
*Roger that, Reaper One, we are C-130 Spectre gunship. We got five mikes until bingo on fuel. Confirm danger close fire mission time now, over.*
“Holy shit,” Sergeant Fox breathed. His ears hurt; he hadn’t realized he’d been pressing the microphone so hard against his face.
*Gungnir, this is Reaper One: I confirm, danger close fire mission. We got tangos in the wood-line at grid Whiskey-Golf 3034-4521, over.*
*Fire mission confirmed. Uh, keep your heads down, Reaper One.*
*Yeah, roger that.*
*Gungnir , this is Ghost Six, don’t hit the big building in the center of the complex. Why do they call you Gungnir?*
*Ghost Six, because we never miss, over.*
The next five minutes represented the greatest amount of destruction that Sergeant Fox had ever witnessed. The Spectre gunship was outfitted with cannons that belonged on tanks; a 105mm howitzer cannon, a 40mm autocannon, and two 20mm vulcan guns; each gun on their own more than enough to annihilate the enemy forces on the ground. Sergeant Fox felt each shot from the howitzer deep inside his ears as their blasts altered the atmospheric pressure for miles; through the green-tinted lattice of the night vision goggles, the Spectre gunship was like an angry dragon hurling salvos of fireballs at the ground below, their passage through the air detonating the atmosphere in bursts of static discharge. As each round impacted, fiery eruptions bloomed from the mountaintop; the Green House looked like it was falling victim to some hidden volcanic god, suddenly breaching the surface of its peak, attempting to swallow the Green House whole. All four weapon systems vomited round after round, dumping everything they had into the land surrounding the compound. Plumes of smoke and ash blossomed, occluding the mountaintop until unceremoniously, Gungnir’s cannon fire stopped. Slowly, the sound rolling down from the mountains dropped in volume, lessening and lessening until it became as a breeze, vibrating across the surface of everything.
*Ghost Six and Reaper One, this is Gungnir: what’s your status?*
Ten seconds passed. Thirty. A minute idled by.
*Ghost Six and Reaper One, this is Gungnir: What’s your status, over?* Concern painted the voice.
*…Gungnir, this is Ghost Six, we are all green and accounted for. Looks like the enemy is beating feet back towards Pakistan; I can hear bells ringin’, over!*
*Haha, roger that Ghost Six. We are zero on fuel and currently Roger-Tango-Bravo, Ghost Six. Glad to be of service.*
“Where you stationed, Gungnir?”
*Ghost Six, we are stationed in Kandahar, over.*
*If I find myself down there, first round is on me.*
*Roger that, Ghost Six. Valhalla awaits; Gungnir, over and out.* With zero preamble, the Spectre gunship veered a hard left, away from the mountains.
*Archangel, this is Ghost Six. You are clear to in-fil; I’m still collecting reports, but we might still need help, over..*
Sergeant Fox blinked and looked over at his men, who were all wildly dancing and cheering. Vee walked up and tapped Fox on the shoulder. “The refueling is complete; let’s get your boys up in the air, roger?” The pilot busied himself with strapping back down into his cockpit. “Ghost Six, this is Archangel; we are enroute!”
*Archangel, this is Ghost Six, roger that. Listen, we hurried our boys out there to the sticks, so keep your guns tight and get good target recognition before engaging. From what I’m hearing, it’s lookin’ like we got things under control down here. How about you make a few passes around the mountain, see if we got any squirters dartin’ off. And if you could, Archangel, fly low – see if you can wash some of this smoke out for us, over.*
“Roger that, Ghost Six. Flyin’ low,” Vee said.
When the helicopter reached the mountaintop, the wash from the blades fanned the smoke out sideways in oily black tidal waves of soot and cinders, revealing the carnage below. The small collection of trees that once existed atop the mountain were now splintered fingers, reaching up towards the blistered sky, begging for relief. Brush fires were everywhere, consuming the vestiges of the remaining plant life and shattered wood. Boulders and stones were cracked and burning as well; the phosphorous detonations of the howitzer’s incendiary ammunition having melted the stone in gouts of cauterized mineral flows. The air stank of scorched earth and burning metals.
Bodies and their pieces littered the mountaintop.
As the helicopter made its first pass, Sergeant Fox peered through the window. The Blackhawk hovered slowly, rotating along the edges of the one-sided battlefield. Sergeant Fox began searching for survivors, eyes scanning the gigantic collection of corpses; a body lay tangled in the branches of an uprooted tree, one of its legs missing at the knee; another body, inside one of the deep craters left by the howitzer rounds, hastily thought of and used as a position of safety, cradling a broken weapon in its hands, its torso covered in fire; a third body in camouflage fatigues, cut in half, a hand reaching up into the air –
“Hey, Vee – there’s a live one down there,” Sergeant Fox spoke into his microphone. The Blackhawk spun around.
“Well, would you look at that,” Vee said, surprised. “He doesn’t look like he’s gonna stay that way for long, though. One sec,” Vee flipped a switch on his dash. “Ghost Six, this is Archangel, we’ve got a survivor directly beneath me.”
*Roger that, Archangel. Wait one.*
Below, Sergeant Fox saw a three man team move in, the leader of which stood before the truncated survivor. The survivor’s hands reached out towards the soldier, the other lay twisted in the tangle of his exposed intestines.
The man screamed. Two shots rang out, and then a third.
*Taken care of, Archangel. Hey, it’s lookin’ pretty clean down here. Feel free to take off, I think we got this. I’m gonna send in my local nationals to clean this shit up.*
“Roger that, Ghost Six. Archangel out.” Vee banked the Blackhawk a hard right, circling back towards Salerno. “Sergeant, looks like it’s time I take you boys home.”
White noise filled Sergeant Fox’s ears, who nodded, unable to speak.
The ride back was a siren’s song, whispering into Sergeant Fox’s ears. The hum of the Blackhawk’s machines and engine were lulling him away to sleep, but he knew that if he succumbed, something, everything would happen simultaneously. Sleep was a luxury he could not yet afford. He could feel it, slithering across his face, pulling down on his eyelids; he felt it in his bones, cementing his joints; he heard it in his chest as it slowed his heart rate, dragging him down into oblivion. Had he been there, on that mountaintop, what would he have seen? How many torn bodies, mutilated corpses? A hundred or so men, how many -
No, not yet.
He looked over his shoulder, his eyes subdued. He looked at his men, and -
“Sergeant Fox! I need you to switch to channel two on the headset!”
Sergeant Fox gave the cockpit a thumbs up, and looked down at his radio equipment. A thumb switch later: “What’s up Vee?”
“Yo! We aren’t gonna make it to Salerno tonight, unfortunately. We’ve got reports of a village that was hit by the Taliban – one of the places that has a school for women. Reports say they were burning people alive. You’re from 3rd Platoon, Alpha Company, right? Well, Alpha is headed there now. We’re gonna drop you off with your boys. Sound good?”
Sergeant Fox nodded. “Sounds good, brother.”
“Alright, letch’er boys know. We’ll be skids down in about five mikes!”
Sergeant Fox reached into his pouch and withdrew the tobasco bottle.
“Hey Sarge, I’ll do you one better! Take a hit of this!”
Sergeant Fox turned around, and saw one of his soldiers taking out an old-school military canteen from his back pouch. He gestured it to Fox, who took it, eyeing the soldier suspiciously. “If this is alcohol, I will shake your hand right before throwing you face-first off this bird,” Sergeant Fox said.
“Me? Never, Sarge! Don’t worry, I got you!”
Sergeant Fox unscrewed the canteen’s cap and sniffed the contents lightly. The pungent aroma of some nameless energy drink greeted him, alongside the sharp stink of freshly ground coffee beans.
“That shit will keep you awake for hours yet, Sergeant Fox. I made it just before we came back out. Take some!”
He drank long and deep before handing the canteen back to his soldier.
“Thanks,” Sergeant Fox said. The effects were almost instantaneous; he could feel his heart quicken, his pulse reinvigorate, and his lungs breathe more deeply. The stony sensation that he was beginning to feel at the corner of his eyes faded, replaced with an anxious, manic energy. The world shifted uncomfortably; a wave of nausea struck Sergeant Fox. He shook his head and slapped his face, and the confines of the Blackhawk stopped spinning.
The helicopter touched down. “Alright boys, the ride is over! Get your shit and get off my chopper! Stay safe down there!” Vee screamed.
Sergeant Fox and his men jumped off the Blackhawk onto solid, grassy land. They were in the middle of a village complex, surrounded by tiny, unfortified buildings made of mud. The men of Alpha Company were scattered around various alleyways and tree-lines, prepared for enemy contact; none was forthcoming. Several structure fires glowed in the early morning twilight, billowing smoke up into the sky in random belches with the breeze. The damage was already done here: three women and one man dangled from a high-tension cable strung between two of the buildings, hung by their necks by telephone wire. Their heads ballooned with the strangled bulge of their entrapped blood vessels, which were beginning to pour from each of their skull’s orifices in a slow, pulpy ooze. Even their scalps were bleeding; their necks hadn’t broke.
“That one there? He was the local sheriff,” the lieutenant said, appearing next to Sergeant Fox, who hadn’t noticed his approach. He was chewing beef jerky as he spoke.
“And this was retaliation for the school being built, right?”
“Yes and no, I think. Yeah, the Taliban hates women getting educated, but I think sometimes they just need to kill something because they have such a hard time killing us.” Absently, the lieutenant picked at his teeth.
Sergeant Fox nodded. He looked behind him; his men had already fanned out, taking up positions that offered the best defense without command.
“Help! Heeelp! PLEASE! YOU HELP! YOU HELP!” A voice cried.
Both the lieutenant and Sergeant Fox looked up, seeing a woman running towards them from down the street. A dozen different rifles were trained on her until they saw she had no weapon; her clothing was smoldering. Sergeant Fox and the lieutenant ran to her and beat the embers off of her shoulders. Doc Flannigan arrived a moment later and draped a recovery blanket around her.
“Help! Must help me! My son! My son!” She pointed to one of the burning buildings.
Sergeant Fox looked at the lieutenant and nodded. He stripped off the harness that carried his grenades and ammunition after unslinging his rifle and unsheathing his shotgun, and laid them at the lieutenant’s feet before running into the burning building. A moment later Sergeant Fox stumbled out of the house, dragging a limp body in a blanket that was burning along the edges of its wool. Several nearby soldiers jumped up and promptly stomped the flames out. The body Sergeant Fox had dragged out - a teenage boy - was severely burned from head to toe. Along his arms and legs, portions of his skin were sloughing off the meat and bones of his body. All of his hair was missing, and every time he breathed, the boy coughed up blood and ash. Parts of his body crackled, as if being cooked, and the air stank sweetly of grease. The boy was screaming, but produced no sound.
“Doc! Get over here! Bring the interpreter!”
Doc Flannigan ran over, the lieutenant in tow, who was anxiously screaming into his radio for his interpreter to get the fuck out of his truck and over to the situation at hand.
“Ah jesus christ,” Doc Flannigan said, looking at the boy. He kneeled down and removed his medical bag from his back, opened it up, and began unspooling a roll of gauze. The boy’s torso heaved with gargantuan effort; blood dyed black from smoke seeped from the corners of his mouth.
“Doc, is he –“
“Fuck no, sir. He’s dead, he just doesn’t know it yet,” Doc Flannigan said through clinched teeth. “If he doesn’t die from the burns, which he almost assuredly fucking will, he will die of gangrene, because he won’t survive me scraping all of this dead fucking tissue away from his wounds tomorrow.”
“Can you at least –“
“What the fuck do you think I’m doing sir?”
The lieutenant flinched; Sergeant Fox sighed, putting a hand to the few burns he had himself.
“Alright, Doc. Alright. I’ll tell the mother.”
Presently, the interpreter trotted up, wearing his NATO equipment. Bits of food were trapped in his beard, and a large coffee stain ran down the front of his body armor. His name-tape was written in Arabic. The lieutenant wiped the interpreter’s face free from crumbs. “Now that you’re presentable, please ask this woman why she and her son were inside that burning building so long after the Taliban left?” The interpreter obliged him. The woman was still sobbing, but she spoke desperately, as if her answers would somehow repair the damage done to her son’s body. The interpreter turned back to the lieutenant.
“She says that she no see the Taliban any more, but saw Russians, and it cause her to fear for her.”
“What fucking Russians is she talking about?” The lieutenant said, frustrated.
A moment later: “She say she thought you are Russian, lieutenant.”
“Oh.. I see now. Thanks.” The lieutenant began to shake with rage. He turned to the mother and pointed to the American flag on his shoulder emphatically. The rural nature of this village meant it was most likely devoid of any outside contact; they probably didn’t even know they had won that particular conflict decades ago. Despite the war having been over for almost thirty years, the Russians were still killing Afghanis. “Please inform her that we’re going to do our very best to save her son’s life,” the lieutenant said.
Doc Flannigan reacted as if he had been slapped.
“Fuck you, sir! FUCK YOU! I told you what is gonna happen here, who the fuck are you to lie to her like that, you fucking –“
“Calm down, Doc –“
“No, no, fuck you sir. You piece of shit. You monstrous piece of shit, you’re gonna make me have to do it, you’re gonna make me have to tell her, you cowardly motherfucker!”
“I said calm –“
“For ten months you’ve had me doing this shit. Three hundred god. Damn. Days. I can’t do it anymore. They are countless, these dead people, and I can’t do it anymore! You need to tell her.. you need to tell her!”
Doc Flannigan began to sob, pounding his bloodied hands down onto his thighs, tears spilling onto the burnt stomach of the boy who now lay unmoving upon the ground. When Doc Flannigan saw that the boy had died, he began to chuckle through his sobs, and then he laughed, and then he was howling with laughter, angry laughter; his voice became ragged and wet from the anger that existed somewhere between his misery and the morbid humors he hid behind.
Sergeant Fox walked over, and helped Doc Flannigan to his feet by his armpits, as one might a sulking child. He was sobbing still when Sergeant Fox took him by the hand, and led him over to a knee high wall made of mortared river stones to sit upon. Sergeant Fox handed him a bottle of water from his cargo pocket; when Doc Flannigan didn’t take it, Fox opened it himself, poured a small amount over the head of Flannigan, and then held it in front of his face. Slowly, hesitantly, Doc Flannigan took the bottle and sipped.
“I can’t do it anymore, Fox, I can’t.. I just can’t,” Doc Flannigan whispered.
Maybe it was the smell of the boy’s charred flesh, or maybe it was the lack of sleep clenching at the dried interior of his stomach, but Sergeant Fox suddenly vomited. A small amount of what looked like tar was trapped inside the pool of his spit. Doc Flannigan didn’t notice. Sergeant Fox shook his head, curing himself from a spell of dizziness.
The woman, seeing Doc Flannigan being led away, realized her son had died; she wailed, beat her chest, and pulled out chunks of her burnt hair by the fistful. Her screams were savage and terrifying. The interpreter did his best to comfort her but to no avail; the soldiers gave her space, scared or perhaps reminded by her grief of their own. A search of the area found that every other person in the village had been shot dead in their homes or soaked in some kind of fuel and burned. Each building was a charnel house, littered with corpses and stained with blood. The mother was the lone survivor. When her voice shattered and broke, she became calm, but was more dead than alive; alone she stalked along the street, moaning, her eyes unfocused and glazed.
As the search concluded, the lieutenant called out over the radio. *Alright, let’s head back to the trucks. There’s nothing more we can do here. Squad leaders, get your men back to their vehicles. Three-Three, meet me at the school house. Get your gear back on and bring Doc.*
When Sergeant Fox arrived, he had Doc Flannigan wait outside of earshot. “Sergeant Fox. We got a MEDEVAC bird coming in. First, cut down those bodies; bag the sheriff’s and bring it back with you; the TOC is gonna want a positive ID. Then I want you to take your boys, scoop up that woman with Doc, and take them back to Salerno. I want you to get Doc somewhere quiet and alone, and stay with him until I get there. You got it?”
Sergeant Fox nodded, and then his head sagged to the left.
The lieutenant cocked his head to the side. “Hey, you alright? You look like you dozed off there for a moment.”
Sergeant Fox straightened. “I’m fine, sir. I’ll see you back at the FOB.”
The men of Alpha Company lined up along the single road leading out of the village, and marched back to their trucks down the highway. Black smoke blew along the road, obscuring the soldiers as they left. Sergeant Fox gathered up his men and made for the same clearing they were dropped off in after finding the mother, who allowed herself to be dragged along with them in tow. She was still moaning to herself when the helicopter landed.
“Everyone onboard,” Sergeant Fox coughed.
His soldiers slowly filled the seats of the helicopter, taking their time to buckle themselves in. Doc Flannigan joined them afterwards; when Sergeant Fox went to guide the mother up the ramp, she pulled away from him and ran. Sergeant Fox cried out to her, but to no avail; a moment later, the woman flung herself through the doorway of her still-burning home as she screamed, “Insha Allah!”
She didn’t come back out.
“Hey, yo, Sergeant Fox! We gotsta go, man! Get on the bird!” The pilot screamed. It wasn’t Vee, but someone else; a different helicopter all together, Sergeant Fox noticed. Slowly, Sergeant Fox climbed aboard, his hands and heart aching with the effort. Doc Flannigan sat there watching the burning building, expressionless. Grime had accumulated along the tear-stains of his face.
The helicopter lifted up into the sky, and headed south to Salerno.
“Hey, Sarge! Sarge!” One of the seated soldiers said.
Sergeant Fox looked over at him. “What do you need?” His voice was mutilated.
“Haha, just wanted to say: you used too much tobasco, brother!” The soldier pointed at Sergeant Fox’s face. “I woulda thought my mix would’ve kept you awake, but guess not!”
Sergeant Fox furrowed his brow, confused. Removing one of his gloves, he reached up to touch his face and wiped away a single tear he hadn’t realized had fallen.
The Blackhawk touched down gently, just as the sun came up over the horizon. Sergeant Fox looked down; somehow, his seat harness was already off. Curious. He reached forward, missed the side wall of the Blackhawk, and fell face-first off the side of the helicopter. One of his soldiers helped him up, dusted him off, and then returned to the company of his fellows, all of which eyed their sergeant suspiciously. Doc Flannigan stood there next to him, motionless and empty.
Sergeant Fox blinked; he was down the walk way; he blinked again; he was along the aisle where his tent stood. He yawned, his rifle slid sideways down the sling strung across his back. When he looked down at the weapon, he left it dangling near his hip. When he looked back up, he was inside his tent, his gear, rifle, and shotgun in a clumsy pile around his feet. Somewhere inside, a speaker turned on and began playing music. He sat down on his makeshift bed, and dropped his face into his hands.
“Mail call, motherfuckers,” a voice droned from the tent flap. “Rise and shine; it’s just another beautiful day in Paradise! Oh, Sergeant Fox: congratulations on the re-enlistment going through last week!” Sergeant Fox looked up. A fist shoved three letters into his hands, the first of which was from his wife, her hand-writing was recognizable anywhere; the second was a letter in official print from the county municipal court back home; the third, a document envelope from his current bank.
Doc Flannigan sat across him; when he had appeared, Sergeant Fox had no idea. “You know what these three mean, right?” The mail orderly said.
“Get out,” Sergeant Fox said. The mail orderly was already gone. Time became lost.
Doc Flannigan stood up. “I’ll be at the bunker.”
“Get the fuck out,” Sergeant Fox said, weakly.
The music moaned and drawled, spilling across the inside of the tent like yellowed puss. Sergeant Fox didn’t recognize the tune, nor where it was coming from. The lyrics felt polluted and sickly, and the guitar riffs curled inside his gut like a clutch of talons.
The sun has fallen down.
And the billboards are all leering.
And the flags are all dead, at the top of their poles -
When Doc Flannigan exited, Sergeant Fox looked down at his shotgun. He looked at the worn grooves of the stock, caked with Afghani dirt and sweat. His eyes traveled down the heat-shield of the slide all the way to the buttoned front of the sight post. His hands reached down and picked the firearm up, and set the buttstock down flush against the ground. He could still taste the tang of the gun-oil, muddied as it was, trapped in its mechanisms. He looked at his gloved hands; each bore splatters of dried blood from the man at the safe-house. He turned one over, and found skin from the murdered boy stuck to his palm –
You grabbed my hand and we fell into it,
Like a daydream, or a fever.
We woke up one morning and fell a little further down.
For sure it’s the valley of death -
Carefully, he moved his face in front of the muzzle, staring down into the cyclopean abyss of the shotgun’s barrel.
I open up my wallet
And it’s full of blood.
When he reached down towards the trigger well, he slumped forward and onto his side, asleep.