Northern Iraq and the Syrian Governorate of Al Hasakha, December 2017
Ripley lay in the tarpaulin hammock, underneath an overhead poncho they had used to keep the sun out of her eyes. They were sensitive and for whatever reason the bright light of the desert was uncomfortable. Even this late in the morning it was cold and she was glad of the warmth of the sleeping bag. James had become a little too protective of her, so they stuck him in the lead vehicle, to prevent him from killing her with kindness. She was sucking on a piece of chocolate Jamie had given her from one of the ration packs and she was drinking plenty of water.
There was nothing “rigged” or “makeshift” about the hammock slung between the front and rear roll bars of the Supacat. It was securely and tautly assembled, slung on the strops that had come off the air-droppable platform. She was glad of the comfort, because the road heading south-west was poorly surfaced and the two vehicles were constantly swerving to avoid the larger potholes. This would be as nothing once they turned west and headed across the border.
The woman they all called “Ripley” pondered on her strange life with a mixture of sadness, some regret and wondered what would have happened if she had chosen a different path. But she knew deep in her heart that a different path would have been impossible. She had no family in any meaningful sense. Her only “family” were these eight men, whom she cared for deeply although it was well hidden under the veneer of indifference. She would watch them surreptitiously, getting to understand what their every nuance of speech and body language meant. She knew their moods and understood their fears. She was exceptionally gifted at reading people and observing things, which was why she was so successful at doing what she did. But in a few months her “family” would be gone, dispersed and she would be alone again. And with the loss of belonging would come the crushing and soul-destroying weight of loneliness. The woman they called “Ripley” had a seclusion that had hollowed out her soul.
She knew that she had been very sick and in her delirium she had looked to the other side. Her death had been just over there, waiting for her, but in no particular hurry. Death was patient because it knew that one day it would have everybody. She had almost decided to go over except for the skill and training of the Thompson twins, the patience and genius of a Scottish Doctor and his discovery of the enzyme lysozyme. And of course the devotion of a tough little Mancunian called Ellis, who if anything was even more insecure than she was. She smiled as she thought of James who had looked bereft when they told him to stop pestering her and ride in the front vehicle. She knew that he had fallen in love with her, and she loved him but in a different way. She felt the chocolate melting against the roof of her mouth and it reminded her of childhood comforts.
She hated what she sometimes had to be. The interrogations made her feel sick, but she loathed them and their blind acceptance of their own superiority far more. And she detested the British fighters the most. These traitors from a country that had plied them with benefits, education and a health care system and their mothers and sisters who had spoiled and pampered them, allowing and turning a blind eye to their depraved barbarity. And she felt a disgust, not only at the Muslim fighters, but at the British establishment, the politicians that had enabled them to flourish for votes and the police who defended them.
But she also tried very hard not to feel contempt for the indigenous English population that allowed their young daughters and sisters to be pimped, raped, abused and tortured at the hands of these men and men like them up and down the country. But she knew this was unfair and that the political class and their agents in the form of the police, would never countenance the population fighting back. When she beat them and terrified these strutting bastards she was fighting against an ideology that hid behind a religion, but was really a political system of conquest and subjugation and because she had been one of them, she understood it far better than most.
The woman who had been born a British Muslim knew that one day she would die out in a place like this, alone, perhaps horribly, after or in a great deal of pain. But it could be in any one of the English towns, in which her MI5 handlers had asked her to operate. Nobody would miss her and nobody would ever know how many lives her single-minded ruthlessness had saved. She had been spat at and called a disgusting Paki bin-bag in Bradford. She had laughed at the black youth and wished that liberal politicians could understand that racism wasn’t confined to the white population. Unfortunately two of his fingers had been broken when she took the knife off him. Oh, and probably a couple of his ribs as well. And his nasal septum with her forehead when she came to think about it. Of course the incident was logged as a white-on-black hate crime, because some young Afro-Caribbean punk had been too ashamed to admit he had been given a good kicking by a Paki bin-bag. She shuddered and tried not to think about her bladder that was becoming uncomfortable.
The GPS read 36.054474 – 41.285680 when they pulled off the road that was running parallel to the border. To their right a single track road led out to the west. They were less than two kilometres from Syria. A corporal who went by the handle of “Manny” Cohen helped Ripley out of her sleeping bag and assisted her getting off the wagon. They all looked away courteously while she relieved herself and he put her back in the hammock while the grownups consulted the map and the GPS.
They all heard a drone and looked to the north as a turbo prop aircraft approached at around 5,000 feet, following the line of the border. It was an AC130 Spectre gunship and it had obviously spotted them, because it made a gentle turn to port and started to circle the two vehicles.
“I hope that bloody IFF is working,” Halward said grimly, “Hoist the colours, Mr Hogan.”
The warrant officer pulled a large Union Flag from a storage locker and laid it across the front of the lead vehicle. The Spectre lost altitude and tracked across the top of them. It turned sharply and made a return pass, less than 100 feet above the two Supacats. As it climbed away, the Hercules waggled its wings. The aircraft kicked up dust and inundated them with the heady smell of Avtur fuel. They all breathed a sigh of relief as the Spectre gunship turned south to resume its patrol. It was not unknown for the Americans to shoot first and ask questions later.
“I think we’ll tie the Union flag on for now. I’m hoping the IFF is squawking like a good-un, but it wouldn’t help to make sure,” Halward said to them, “I’m hoping they’ve all been told we’re here, but you never can tell. How far to the rendezvous, Mr Hogan?”
“Around thirty kilometres along this Khwaibyra Road and the rendezvous is just north of the river and this small settlement of Aaloua. Allowing for poor road surface, around one-and-a-half to two hours.”
Halward looked at his watch, “Fifteen hundred. All the weapons ready on the wagons please.”
He went and looked in on Ripley, “How are you feeling/”
“I know you’re probably bored shitless, but it’s for the best until you’re one hundred percent.”
“I’d settle for eighty at the moment. It’s so humiliating having to be helped to do a piss.”
“We’ve had to give Mr Ellis counselling,” Halward told her with a grin.
She smiled, “I don’t know what I’d have done without him.”
The vehicles started up and turned off the main highway, well-spaced with the crews at a tense state of readiness. Whenever they saw something on the road or at the side that looked suspicious, somebody would go forward on foot to do twenty and five metre checks, but it was slow work and Halward was ever conscious of the time. Up ahead and to their right was an open cast mine or quarry, judging by the buildings and spoil tips. It would have been an ideal place from which to mount an ambush. Halward ordered the vehicles off the road and they went into the cover of a dry wadi. He ordered four troopers to go ahead on foot, two armed with Minime Squad Automatic Weapons (SAWs) to boost the multiple’s firepower.
He watched them advance through the binoculars and saw two figures come out of the mine workings, carrying their weapons out of the aim. The troopers went to ground and one of the figures beckoned the vehicles in.
“I guess they are our Canadian friends,” he said to the driver, “Let’s go.”
The two Supacats moved back onto the road and into the industrialised area which was an open cast mine. A Ground Mobility Vehicle (GMV), a derivative of the Humvee was well camouflaged near a spoil tip. There were only four of them and one came forward as Halward dismounted from the vehicle.
“Afternoon, gentlemen. I’m Captain Mike Caron. You’re a day late.”
“Paul Halward. Yeah, sorry about that. Our interpreter has pneumonia and we couldn’t move her for twenty-four hours.”
“Let me introduce you,” He led the Canadian to the rear of the vehicle, “Captain Caron, this is Ripley.”
“Afternoon Mr Caron.”
“Ma’am. You look pretty comfortable in that set up.”
“They are all very kind to me. Mind you, I do their washing and cater for their every whim.”
“Oh, sure,” Caron said uncertainly, not quite getting what the Brits passed off as a sense of humour.
“I believe you are in the process of taking Ash Shaddadi and you’re going to lead us into the town,” Halward said.
“That’s the general idea, but there are a couple of problems. One, we haven’t taken it yet and two, we have some unwanted guests in the area. You got your map?”
They opened it out on the engine compartment of the GMV and Caron orientated the British officer, indicating the main features with the point of a pencil.
“The Euphrates running from north-east to south-west. We’re here on the Kahbur River that runs south into the Euphrates. These areas are occupied by ISIL, the major routes and the river valleys.
“Now the Iranians have been mainly operating in the west of the country, Hama, Homs and Damascus. There was also a small presence here on the Euphrates, in and around the airfield at Deir ez-Zor, which we knew aboot. But they’ve recently been very naughty and a fighting group has moved up the Kahbur and are now ensconced in Aaloua, about ten clicks to our south-west. When we paid them a visit to ask what the hell they were playing at, they fired on our vehicle.”
The Canadian sounded really indignant. Fire on the Brits and Americans, well sure, but everybody liked the Canucks, didn’t they?”
“How many are there?” asked Halward.
“Aboot a hundred. Obviously we can’t afford to have Hezbollah operating in numbers to our rear, so they’re going to be got rid of, this evening.”
“By all twelve of us? I presume you want us to help?”
“If you’re up for it, but it will just be a mopping up exercise,” Caron explained, “That Spooky that checked you out earlier, well we’ve asked the USAF very nicely if they would mind popping back when it’s dark and terminating their presence.”
“What about the local inhabitants?” asked Halward, visualising what little of the village would be left once the C130 gunship had finished.
“Aaloua was a Christian village, as were a lot of them along the Euphrates and its tributaries. They were slaughtered and the survivors fled south into Jordan. I really couldn’t care less aboot anyone who mixes with Hezbollah bastards.
“Now your little Tonka toys have mobility and firepower. Would you mind swinging round to the east of Aaloua and position your patrol on the road south, to engage any who make it out and try to head back towards Deir ez-Zor. We’ll move back towards the junction to prevent any of them heading north or east into Iraq.”
Haward thought about it. To refuse would have lost good will with the Canadians and this was their area of operations. His directive was too important to make an enemy of allies “OK, Captain Caron. You can count us in as long as I can leave Ripley here with a minder. She’s still too sick to be involved in a firefight.”
Caron grinned, “Thanks, bud. She can stay here. We’ve been using one of the mining buildings and it’s quite comfortable. Once we’ve finished we’ll stay here for the night and head north in the morning.”
Halward went to brief his patrol and make sure that Ripley was comfortable. He knew that his men would be quite happy to engage in some gratuitous ultraviolence. But for himself he wasn’t so sure that slaughtering Iranians was such a good idea. However, the presence of a hostile group within their operational area could not be tolerated and they may have been the enemy of the enemy, but they were not friends.
Ellis was lying on top of a spoil heap from where he could observe the road to the west and the wadi bed. He was armed with an FN Minime and had a couple of spare ammunition belts round his neck. It was quiet apart from the high pitched yipping sounds of the Fennec foxes. He had been pissed off at having to babysit Ripley and miss the fun, particularly as she had been asleep in her sleeping bag when he went on stag. He thought a lot about Ripley, trying to remember what she had felt like, nestled up against him. At least the desert foxes sounded like they were having a good time.
Later he heard another sound that came from the building below, the sound of a woman coughing. It came from outside rather than inside of the building and Ellis sighed with displeasure, because he knew what was happening. He lugged up the Minime and stalked down the slope of the spoil heap. He found her behind the building, crouched down, the cigarette sheltered in the cup of her hands.
“Fuck’s sake, Ripley,” he exclaimed, took the cigarette off her and ground it under his boot.
She stood up angrily, “Who the fuck do you think you are, James? You’re not my bloody big brother!”
“You’ve got pneumonia, you stupid woman! We’ve all been looking after you for the past couple of days, keeping you alive and you decide to go and have a fag. Your lungs are still full of puss and shit for God’s sake. Sometimes I wonder if you’re all right in the head, Ripley!”
She punched him in the shoulder, not hard because she was still too weak and he merely rolled with the blow. Ellis said absolutely nothing, he just walked away back to his stag position. And that was probably worse. She felt tears of anger and frustration pricking her eyes and was tempted to light another one, just to… Well to…
“Fuck you, James!”
She waited in the darkness deciding what to do, then she went back inside for her carbine and went to look for him. Ellis heard her climbing up the slope, but ignored her. Ripley lay down next to him and nuzzled his head with hers like a cat.
“Sorry, James. It’s just that I’m so fed up feeling like this.”
He rolled onto one elbow and looked at her, “What’s your real name, Ripley?”
“I’ll tell you when this is over and we’re waiting for our flight home. After all, it was you who called me Ripley?”
“Are you ashamed of your real name?”
“Yes, I suppose I am.”
“But that’s stupid,” he scoffed, “Look, none of us are blind. You don’t exactly conform to your typical English Rose, although I bet you’re as English as I am. We don’t care, we like you for what you are. All of us… Me especially.”
“Oh, James,” She hugged him and the two of them nestled together for warmth. They lay together in the darkness until they heard the drone of an aircraft coming from the south.
“Showtime,” said Ellis.
The inside of the AC 130 Spectre was like no Hercules interior that any of the frequent flyers in these transport aircraft would recognise. There wasn’t a single notable space inside of the fuselage that wasn’t taken up with sophisticated electronic sensors and countermeasures, ammunition and armaments, particularly ammunition. The crew of thirteen knew the aircraft as “Spooky” and they wore helmets, flak jackets and little else on their torsos, because once it went into action, the inside of Spooky would become very hot.
The AC 130 had a derived version of AN/APG-66 radar (formerly used on F-16A Fighting Falcon) for navigation and air to ground mapping mounted in the nose. For detection a Raytheon Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) was mounted under the fuselage in front of the nose-wheel doors. In the CSAR role the gunship had a Personal Locator System (PLS), while targeting was achieved with a General Dynamics AN/APQ-150 Beacon Tracking Radar (BTR) – side-looking radar designed to search, acquire, and track ground beacon signal (X-band transponder) and a Low Light Level Television (LLLTV) – EO fire control system.
All of the aircraft’s weaponry was mounted to fire out of the port fuselage, consisting of three main weapons systems: a General Dynamics 25 mm GAU-12/U Equalizer 5-barrel rotary cannon, a 40 mm L/60 Bofors cannon and a 105 mm M102 howitzer.
As it approached the village the Spectre’s FLIR had already acquired the main targets from the heat of vehicle engines and the habitation of the buildings. It was operating at 7,000 feet which would normally make such a large aircraft an easy target, hence its operating at night. Additionally, as the port wing went down and the Spectre went into its turn, flares and chaff were spewed out into the night sky. With the inner wing of the turn pointing down at the targets, the Spectre opened up with all of its weaponry. From a distance it looked as though the aircraft was pivoting on a column of fire and then came the ripping sounds of the rotary cannon and the individual thuds of the Bofors and howitzer.
Even at several kilometres away, Ellis looked away to protect his night vision. Ripley could only watch in fascination as the settlement under the Spectre seethed and glowed with detonations and fiery debris was hurled into the air from the blasts of the guns. There was a very brief ribbon of return fire from the ground, but it was swiftly extinguished. The Spectre continued to circle for five more minutes, occasionally firing as what was left of any targets as they presented themselves. Then the AC 130 headed north and its drone faded.
“Well,” said Ellis.
“Poor bastards,” said Ripley.”
“I would hazard a guess that the rest of the lads won’t come back for some time. We could always…” He was only half joking.
“That would be a very bad idea, James and we would regret it.” She was only being half serious.
© Blown Periphery 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file