Eagle in the Storm
The desert is a truly hopeless, lifeless place. It is a hard, brown land that stretches endlessly toward the horizon, meeting an equally bleak and unforgiving sky. Its hot, cutting winds offer no reprieve against the merciless sun. The air is dry, empty, and scorching to the lungs. Its only resource is the endless blanket of sand and dust, always ready and perfectly willing to remove any trace of life or civilization. Yet, even this sun-bleached, inhospitable place, man willfully (perhaps foolishly) clings on to life. Ever present, ever struggling to eke out every drop of sustenance from a desolate environment.
The Black Hawk's whirring blades kicked up a storm as it started its steady descent. Brown dust whipped through the air, blinding the eye and suffocating the lung. Standing in the dust cloud, shielding his face, Wade Howard wondered for a moment what delusions drove men onwards in such a barren wasteland.
Gradually, the sandstorm thinned and cleared as the Black Hawk settled onto the hard desert ground, its massive rotors still swinging lazily in the aftermath of its recent activity. Small clouds of sand still whipped against Howard's ankles, but there was no longer any need to cover his face. Removing the protective arm, he opened his eyes and looked to the helicopter through black-tinted sunglasses.
The large, matte black machine now sat idly on the brown, its blades still slowly revolving overhead. The massive cargo doors slid open, revealing a spacious passenger compartment empty save for one man. Tall, broad-shouldered, with wiry muscles and clad from head to toe in clean ACU fatigues, he struck an impressive figure to Howard's weary eye.
Howard hunched his shoulders and jogged toward the helicopter, making sure to keep his head clear of the rotors. He reached the door just in time to receive the passenger's black duffel bag, thrown unceremoniously out of the door. The large, ebony-skinned man followed soon after, raising an eyebrow clearly behind black sunglasses. A thick New York accent emitted from his lips, tinged in amusement.
"Who're you? My new personal assistant?"
Howard shifted his grip on the bag as gracefully as possible and allowed his wind-burned face to break into an easy smile. His eyes flashed for a moment toward the now clearly visible eagle insignia etched into the forehead of the passenger's cap. Extending his available hand, he spoke,
"Captain Wade Howard, 2nd Rangers. Acting Task Force Commander. I'm supposed to show you around, sir."
The taller man nodded and took Howard's hand in a firm grip.
"Colonel Jack Willow, SOCOM. Your new Task Force Commander. Lead the way, Ranger."
Howard's smile became a more genuine grin and he turned, jogging away from the helicopter with Willow following closely behind.
"This way, sir. I have to say, the guys have been pretty nervous. We heard that the brass was gonna expand our operation here, which is good, we just didn't know what to expect for our replacement CO."
"Really? How am I doing so far?"
"Personally sir, I'd say you're a solid kind of guy."
"Thank you, Captain. I'll try not to prove you wrong in the immediate future."
Like so many mirages, long squat buildings of wood and canvas seemed to spring out of the sand. Perfectly aligned, painted in dull, unassuming tones, Howard knew without looking that the structures stretched onwards until hitting a perimeter wall of razor wire and land mines. He thought that Willow probably knew it too. The colonel walked confidently beside him, boots already thudding into the dirt with an assured sense of familiarity. Vaguely, Howard wondered where the Army managed to dig up these guys—the kind that belonged more in recruitment posters than in hard, washed-out reality.
A slightly larger and more permanent-looking structure emerged to their left, one rather illogically painted in a dull green. Two rather worn down Rangers flanked the door, though all signs of fatigue vanished the moment they spotted the eagle insignia on Willow's forehead. Snapping to attention, they stared ahead as Howard twisted door knob and pushed the flimsy tin door open.
"Here we go, sir. Command Central."
The colonel spared him a courteous nod and ducked into the breach.
The cool, dark interior of the HQ building provided a welcomed reprieve from the unforgiving heat outside, though the sharp contrast in light hurt Willow's eyes for a moment. It's been a long time since he'd been in the desert and he was no longer young. Whipping off his cap, he wiped the thin layer of perspiration that had beaded on his forehead. A severe buzz-cut hugged his scalp, graying temples served as the only sign of his age.
Behind him, Howard's lumbering figure stepped through the door and closed it, Willow's big duffel bag still dangling from his fist. The barrel-chested Captain moved like a bear and looked something like one; certainly in width if not in height. Willow didn't usually care for Ranger types, but this Howard seemed like a steady character—not too hooah and not too burned out. He's certainly done well here with what he had, which wasn't and still isn't much.
The entire command center ground to a halt in an instant. Willow's gaze zeroed in on the source of the command, a wiry Master Sergeant sporting the unmistakable high-and-tight of a U.S. Army Ranger. Straightening automatically, Willow returned the sergeant's sharp salute.
"Good morning, sir. HQ Staff total and present strength forty-two ready for instructions, sir!"
"Thank you, sergeant. Carry on."
The non-com snapped off another salute before executing a perfect about-face and bellowing,
"Company, STAND EASY!"
Like statues coming to life, all forty-two occupants of HQ moved from complete stop-motion to full activity as though the interruption had never occurred. Willow glanced back at the captain,
"You can drop the bag, by the way. Nothing classified in there."
With a sheepish grin, Howard let the duffel bag slip to the ground as gently as possible. As though to mock him, a small dust cloud rose to envelope the bag as soon as it hit the ground. The Ranger barely had time to spare both bag and dust a scornful glance before striding onwards to give Willow the grand tour.
"Gentlemen, you both know the drill. All documents kept within this room is strictly confidential, no document, original or photocopy, is to leave this room at any time," the resident camp clerk was bespectacled mouse of a man, hardly befitting the image of a soldier. He droned through the security briefing as though reciting from memory, which of course, he was, "access to documents can only be granted by permission from contingent CO or XO, documents must be re-secured in the designated lockers when allocated inspection time is up. Outdated documents will promptly be destroyed. Any questions?"
Willow gave a humorless smile,
"No lieutenant, you can go now."
"Yes sir, holler when you're done."
The scrawny little man disappeared through the door flap. Willow stared after the clerk for a moment before shaking his head. He never liked clerks; most of the ones he met had an air of resentment about them, as though the world owed them an apology for some unnamed yet no less heinous offence. He mused for a moment over how the man came to wear a bronze bar on his collar before deciding that the subject could wait. Returning his glance to the manila binder in his hand, his eyes glided over the "Confidential—Eyes Only" stamped in red letters over the tan surface. He flipped it open, letting his eyes fall over the many briefing sheets, maps, and aerial photographs inside.
"Where we are, sir, is just about the shittiest area in a bad neighborhood," Howard's hands flew deftly over the pages, indicating appropriate spots as he spoke, "it has the highest concentration of traffic in this entire mountain range. However this, in itself, ain't a big problem…"
"Then what is the problem?"
"The geography, sir. Their entire area of operations is in the mountains. They got about a hundred different mountain paths and goat trails to choose from, and those are the only ones we know."
"Let me guess, if you were a betting man, you'd wager that there're a few hundred more we don't know about."
"Read my mind, sir."
Willow grimaced, his flimsy humor evaporating. Bad news could never incite good moods: manpower was an issue he could fix, geography wasn't. Bringing more people was one thing, rearranging mountain passes was quite another.
"What about the main roads? You're not telling me these guys run guns across the bare desert, are you?"
Howard actually managed a dry chuckle at this,
"No sir, not all the way across the desert—just far enough to get past our checkpoints before cutting in to the nearest friendly village. Where the weapons go from there is the CIA's guess."
"Okay, back to the mountains then. Tell me what you're doing now."
"Well, with the limited strength we have, we're tryin' to stretch out and cover as much area as we can. We have humvee teams mounting roving patrols across this entire region of desert here, we try to overlap the routes and randomize the timing. We got our Black Hawks and Little Birds doing double shifts, trying to squeeze every bit of extra coverage and air time out of those helos. We still leave holes, sir."
"Big fucking holes, sir."
Willow stared at the maps as though trying to make a solution appear through sheer force of will.
"If I bring you enough manpower to cover the holes, can you guarantee a drop in the arms flow?"
"Sir, this is long stretch of desert. It'd take a whole regiment to plug all the holes."
"Then what do you suggest, captain?"
"I say we go on the offensive, sir. It's the same old rule, sitting and waiting ain't gonna get us shit."
"Into the mountains then?"
"That's what I say, sir."
"What you say?"
The captain paused, a frown flitted across his rugged face.
"Some of the other team leaders don't agree with me."
"Well then we'll wait for them to come back and talk about it together."
With brisk, efficient moves, Willow slipped the papers back into the binder, closed it and filed it back into its safe. His voice was casual,
"Are there any other problems I should know about?"
"Then let's go have some chow, I'm starving."
BDUs are designed with moisture in mind, specifically how to keep moisture out. Granted, not all of it, but even a little bit was better than nothing, no? Perhaps it made sense to the manufacturer, given that a wet soldier more often than not becomes a sick soldier. However, like the saying goes, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions", and whoever created this feature overlooked a crucial function of the human body: sweating. Whilst the tough fabric of the Battle Dress Uniform wasn't completely effective in preventing its user from becoming soaked by outside sources, it was the picture of efficiency when keeping sweat in. The result, of course, was exactly the opposite of the intention.
Sergeant First Class Neil Camden spat in a futile attempt to remove the dusty taste of the desert from his tongue. Night approached, but the red sun, suspended just above the horizon, still stubbornly radiated oppressive heat. Not that Camden look forward to night, darkness in the desert came with its own set of discomforts, which were no less intolerable than those in the day.
The Delta Operator sighed and conceited defeat in his latest battle against dusty wasteland. He returned his eyes to the wide sandy earth below: flat land that stretched from miles before crashing into a long range of craggy mountains. Technically, the sergeant was supposed to be a marksman for providing precision fire. Hell, he was equipped for the job too; a modified M-16 with a heavy marksman scope lay in his lap even now. But for all the extra magnification, a sniper weapon was no good if there were no targets to fire at.
This, Camden reflected, has been exactly his dilemma for a very long time.
The sergeant spared a glance back at his team: six D-Boys in all, every one of them visibly worn down by too much sand and too much heat for too long. His team, because technically he was team leader—another untruth, those this time for a very different reason. The men had simply known each other for too long, and were too similar in ability. In a unique organization like Delta, professional accomplishments often overshadow what most would consider militarily good and proper. In a unique organization like Delta, appointments and ranks meant very little. When you can all jump off planes and storm buildings, what difference are a couple of extra stripes?
"Six minutes to LZ!"
The radio crackled the message and the mood within the helo seemed to lighten a little. For a split second, Camden thought of cool showers and hot rations, before reality stomped down its brutal foot. The utilitarian facility that awaited them behind the equally inadequate helipad held none of the morale-lifting creature comforts he dreamed of. Still, the prospect of a little sleep was far better than nothing, even if it was done sweaty and dirty.
Brown waves of dirt rippled across the flat desert lands and Camden felt a change in the Black Hawk's movement. Slipping his goggles over his eyes, and stretching his legs, he looked forward planting his boots on good hard ground again.
As always, the dust storm momentarily blinded him as he leapt out of the chopper, taking care to keep his head low. The first time he did this, he'd felt goggles were unnecessary and the ensuing discomfort had convinced him otherwise. Not that he could see even with the eye protection on, but the cutting sand no longer blew into his eyes. He plunged ahead into the curtain of rippling brown particles, the six other men following behind him.
The dust gradually cleared, and as soon as it did all thoughts of showers or food disappeared from Camden's mind. The camp was alive with activity—far more activity than was normal. Rangers in their high-and-tights were briskly setting up more tents; Deltas stood guard instead of the normal duty personnel, and nearby, Activity (dubbed Deep Thorn in this instance) members were construction what looked suspiciously like a temporary landing strip. For a moment, the old excitement was back in Camden's veins, before being slowly replaced by apprehension. Sure, command had finally taken notice of this shithole's steep importance-to-attention ratio, but this looked to be a massive expansion of operations. A massive expanse that was happening entirely too quickly to be normal. Something was up.
The new face that emerged from the command tent simply confirmed his suspicion; Camden didn't need to see an eagle insignia to recognize Colonel Jack Willow.