Separated from us by four-and-a-half hours
|This is a work of fiction. Nothing like this has ever or could ever happen. Any events or resemblance to any characters living or dead is purely intended|
Three hours and fifteen minutes into their shift, the pilot and weapons systems operator of the Reaper drone were on top of their mission, having been briefed and reminded of their rules of engagement. They were comfortable in their air-conditioned module inside a Portakabin, inside a hangar on an RAF base that was within sight of one of Europe’s finest Medieval, Gothic cathedrals. Four-thousand-seven-hundred miles away, the Reaper drone circled in a lazy descending pattern 20,000 feet above the Hindu Kush.
The pilot sat on the left, the weapons systems operator (WSO) on the right. The female pilot and male WSO each had two large screens and two smaller ones in front of them. The top screen showed the Reaper’s position on a Google map overlay while the bottom one was a monochrome IR display. On the bottom screen, five dark figures lurked on the edge of a road that had been built by the Russians, twenty-three years earlier. Behind them was a small, walled compound from which they had appeared. It was pointless speculating as to how someone had known of this night’s illicit activities or who they were.
“Well, they aren’t filling potholes,” the WSO observed laconically. He keyed his radio mike and spoke to a battle captain in the Combined Joint Operations Cell (CJOC), 4,500 miles away, “Confirm lock on, CJOC.”
“Roger that, Reaper,” this accent was modulated Mid-Western States. It sounded like he was in the next room, “Strike.”
The WSO looked over his left shoulder at the shift supervisor, “CJOC authorise a strike.”
The supervisor, a young flying officer who had had the misfortune to visit the station barber earlier that morning, nodded his confirmation, “I authorise the strike.”
The pilot smiled to herself and thought: he couldn’t authorise a decent hair-cut.
The release signal was beamed by a CIA geostationary satellite to the circling predator and the clamps on the aircraft’s hard-point opened. The Brimstone missile dropped free and its solid fuel rocket motor fired, punching the little missile downwards at over 1000 feet per second. The Reaper pilot’s bottom screen showed the circling view from the drone’s IR display and the square encompassing the black, crouching figures pixelated, then settled.
The five Afghans were dressed against the cold, spilling down the valley from the snow-capped mountains. They had finished burying the explosively formed projectile that had been delivered from Iran the previous week, at the side of the road. One of the men was connecting the command wire before running it out to the hiding position, where his son would detonate it when the next ISAF convoy passed. He thought he felt a disturbance in the air above and paused before the whitest heat he had ever known engulfed them.
The screens blacked out and when they cleared, a white scar surrounded by numerous, indistinct black clumps was centred on the screens. Nothing remained of the figures. Seconds later, a second Brimstone destroyed the Honda pick-up, parked some 50 yards away. The bomb-setter’s son had been asleep under a tarpaulin in the back. A missile costing £105,000 had destroyed a pick-up truck worth £500, plus six humans whose net value was much more difficult to quantify.
Squadron Leader Margin dumped his paper plates and plastic cutlery in the waste bin of the Headquarters Combined Messing Facility. Ignoring the “flasks are not to be filled from these dispensers,” he had filled a flask of tea now in his inside smock pocket, which was warm against his Norwegian shirt. Margin was what the RAF Regiment called a “Guin,” short for penguin, a flightless bird, but the RAF Regiment was few and far between in the International Stabilisation and Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters. He preferred to eat alone with his thoughts at breakfast of porridge, fruit and coffee. Not forgetting the little sachets of Gales honey. Last time he had tasted Gales honey was when he was a snot-nosed kid in a North Devon school. The cooked breakfasts he avoided as they consisted of rancid bacon that came from a tin and compo sausages, stewed tinned tomatoes and disintegrating bain maries full of baked beans. God knows what the bread slices were. But the lunches were good.
Margin walked the short distance to the Headquarters complex behind the Hesco Bastion anti-blast walls. He showed his pass, went through the turnstile and headed straight for the smoking shelter that looked like a band stand. An Australian SAS captain in his splodged, dappled combat jacket nodded greeting in a slightly reserved manner. It seemed to Margin that the Australian field uniforms were better suited to hunting down baddies with Skippy, rather than the Taliban, but he kept his thoughts to himself. The Australian Special Forces were not only respected, but could be feisty when provoked. He decided to catch up with the events of the night with the ops team rather than the upstairs offices. It also meant he could avoid his German SO1, whom he despised with a vengeance.
He knew that smoking was stupid, but he reasoned that he only smoked while on Ops and could and did give it up when he got home. The trouble was the age of fifty had hit him like a brick wall and now at fifty-one passing the annual fitness test was getting more difficult. He lit the cigarette and hated himself for it. He leaned against an upright of the wooden structure, a small, middle-aged man in a desert windproof smock that was too big for him, baggy trousers and desert boots that were scuffed to buggery. A nondescript man who would pass largely unnoticed. A trait that had served him well in another, earlier, slightly more dangerous life.
The CJOC was busy after the morning’s hand-over, take-over. It was cold in the vast room, the air conditioning cranked up to NATO levels of frigidity. A bunch of American warriors were watching a play-back of the predator feeds of the previous night on one of the huge screens that dominated the whole front wall, whooping and high- fiving at the Brimstones’ impacts. Part of him enjoyed watching terrorists being obliterated, but another, deeper part knew that this was their country, and while ISAF had all the watches, the Taliban had the time. Margin slid into one of the pews towards the middle right of the CJOC.
“Morning, Allan,” Margin said to the Ops SO3 from the day shift, an American Naval Lieutenant Reservist, bespectacled and with an unfeasibly short haircut. He had already taken over from the night shift and had been in the CJOC since 0545.
He looked up and smiled with genuine warmth, “Morning, sir.”
“I’ve told you, Allan. You’re an SO3. I’m an SO2. We’re bottom feeders. Don’t call me sir, unless we’re in the briefings and the Colonel’s there, or that Boche bitch, my SO1. It’s Chris, remember?” Margin logged onto a spare console and started to trawl through his e-mails.
“Sorry, but it’s difficult. I’ve only done this a few weekends a year. You Brits seem more laid back than our military. I thought you’d be saluting each other in your sports kit.”
“And now you’ll be out here for a year, while I do six months. You’ll be the expert.” The Squadron Leader triaged his e-mails and as suspected, most of them were crap. Some tube from RC South was running a marathon in full battle order, for Children in Need. Could anybody in ISAF HQ please sponsor him? Margin said “fuck off” under his breath as he deleted the e-mail, then he compiled the status, personnel and bed reports from the various Medical Treatment Facilities, for the Colonel and SO1 Med Ops upstairs. It soon became apparent that RC South and RC South West were short of critical care beds.
“What happened in RC South last night, Allan?” Margin couldn’t be bothered to wade through the fifty e-mails remaining unread.
Allan polished his glasses on a piece of blue roll, “Serious RTA. Tanker came off the road, rolled over…”
“And caught fire?”
“Only after the locals started to pillage the gas. Then it caught fire. And then it blew up. RC South are trying to get the critical cases to the MSF facility in Qalat.”
“So in the meantime, they’re clogging up our system and MSF aren’t answering the phone. How am I doing?”
The US Navy lieutenant smiled, “Well, si… Chris. Have you ever heard of the theory of synchronicity?”
While Margin had been contemplating waking up, still dreaming of Gales honey and the sun hadn’t yet risen above the peaks of the mountains surrounding Kabul, the fifty-odd men of Forward Operating Base (FOB) Edgehill had silently moved into a covert stand-to. FOB Edgehill was a brick and mud walled complex in the Sangin Valley that should have been manned by the Afghan National Army (ANA). Unfortunately, the ISAF-appointed Governor of Helmand Province hadn’t bothered to pay the ANA that he was responsible for, because the money was now in a Swiss bank account, so they had left, taking their nice, new, American-supplied weapons with them. So the FOB was manned by the Brits.
The sky was purple and gold, with stars still visible. The breath of the soldiers hung in the air and condensation glistened on the metal parts of the weapons. The road outside the complex was still a deep valley of darkness. From the shadows came darker shadows, shrouded in black clothes. It was the village women starting their day. At each corner of the complex, a raised platform with overhead protection called citadels had been erected, manned by soldiers with GPMGs and LAWs. The troops in the citadels watched as a number of the women moved to the compound’s main gates, squatted and showed their gratitude to the troops of ISAF protecting them with loose turds that steamed in the morning chill. Unconcerned, they adjusted their niqabs and moved on.
Rifleman Green spat down at road to register his disapproval. The Lance-jack on the GPMG observed in a low mutter, “Same shit, different day.”
Below them in the lean-to that was the command post, they heard radio chatter and static. The Lance-jack muttered again: “I think we might be going for a little stroll today. Probably to do with last night’s excitement.”
Captain Thorpe was the FOB Commander, his 2IC was Second Lieutenant Morse, a small, but wiry youngster in his very early twenties. Unfortunately, Morse looked fifteen. While the personnel of Edgehill attended to the morning personal admin, Morse was in the corner of a compound, alternatively squatting then standing, fiddling with something on the ground.
Sergeant Welland pushed out of the bead curtain and posted a sheet of paper on the noticeboard outside the CP. It had the names of twenty of the FOB’s personnel. They were the names of those who would be going out on a fighting patrol that morning, four multiples of four with a four-man command element, comprising Lieutenant Green, the sergeant, Signaller Smith and the medic, Corporal Steer. Steer was universally known as “Godfrey.” Rifleman Green wandered over to the notice board along with several others and scanned the list of names. He was in the third multiple.
They had to hand it to him, Lieutenant Morse was a dab hand at making briefing models. He had carefully flattened the dust to represent roads, dug grooves with his fingers to denote drainage ditches and canals. Pieces of moss had been used to represent undergrowth and what the observers assumed was a compound had been fashioned out of a compo box. They couldn’t work out what the rifle cleaning tool on one of the roads near the compound was meant to represent.
The eighteen Toms were grouped around Morse in a rough semi-circle. Sergeant Welland stood off to one side, but where the Lieutenant could see him. Morse went through the briefing format: situation, telling them about the drone strike the night before.
“Our mission is to photograph, document and map the area of the strike, gathering intelligence and possible forensic evidence,” Rather self-consciously he repeated the mission, then went into Service support, friendly forces, possible enemy forces and intent, finishing with call signs and timings.
The Toms rather liked Second Lieutenant Morse, but they were still at the stage they were following him out of curiosity. He was learning his craft with the help of the NCOs and apart from the odd comment that a less confident junior officer would take as insubordination, the troops never went out of their way to stitch him up. It seemed like a not so bad patrol, five clicks out, an hour on the ground then five clicks back for late lunch at around 1300. The Toms went off to gather their kit and put on their war faces.
They left the compound at 0800 and moved north at a steady pace, well-spaced and irregular, the point men constantly conducting five and twenty metre checks of the ground for IEDs. The patrol was well tooled up with four LSWs, one for each multiple. Corporal Steer was constantly moaning that as well as his heavy medical Bergen, he had to carry the folding, aluminium scaling ladder.
“Why do I have to carry the bloody ladder?”
“Coz you’re a PONTI.”
“A person of no tactical importance.”
It was hot and soon the sweat was running from under their helmets and down their backs. About an hour out, a two figures on a motorbike came up behind them. Despite the rear men of the patrol yelling and gesturing for them to stop, two Afghan kids wearing white dish-dash roared past on the bike and gave the patrol the finger. Despite the obvious threat, Sergeant Welland was profoundly relieved that no one had opened fire, which under their rules of engagement, they would have been entitled to do.
“Fuck,” observed Rifleman Green.
They knew they were approaching their objective. To the right was a low, mud-coloured compound and a deep drainage ditch ran parallel to the road on the left. One multiple crossed the water and pushed into waist-high vegetation, another skirted the compound to the east, the third moved up to compound wall, while the forth multiple and the command team went to inspect the wrecked pick-up that was still smoking and the flat depression in the road. Scavengers had done their work and all that remained were dark, blood-spattered rags and the stench of burned rubber.
In the cover of the compound’s wall, Green went down on one knee to cover the road behind. He wasn’t wearing knee pads and the joint found a sharp stone. He grunted and shifted his weight. A stone slab at the base of the wall moved slightly and there was a metallic click like a Zippo lighter opening.