Ramon herded the Nusra fighters around the collapsed building. The Quds Force fighters had been beaten back for the time being and had retreated back to Syrian Army positions elsewhere in the city. A couple of civilians who were busy looting abandoned homes had told them where they had seen the white men go; into a building just before an artillery strike hammered it.
The building was flattened with the outer walls all but collapsed, and the concrete slabs that had made up the three-story building rested one on top of the other. All three of the Liquid Sky men had to be dead, Ramon figured. He didn’t much care about Rick or The Operator, but he was still trying to wrap his mind around the sell out by Deckard. He had turned traitor without any indication of why. Be that as it may, Bill was offering a huge reward for his head and he’d be damned if he wouldn’t have the Nusra fighters pick through the debris until they found him.
Soon, the jihadists located a basement window and began shining a flashlight inside. The yellow beam of light seemed to reflect back as it caught on sparkles of dust in the air. The window was narrow, maybe only one foot high by two feet wide. The Nusra terrorists continued to take turns poking their heads inside while others climbed up on top of the remains of the building. Then, they heard footsteps inside followed by someone coughing.
Hands covered in white chalk dust reached up for the window. The Nusra fighters grabbed on and heaved the survivor up and through the small window. He was completely covered in dust and grime from the collapsed building.
“Watch out,” the survivor said in Arabic. “The traitor is somewhere behind me.”
By now Ramon was jogging over to see who they pulled out of the basement. With the survivor covered in dust, he couldn’t tell if the Nusra fighters were talking to Rick or The Operator.
Suddenly, the survivor tore the AK-47 from the hands of the nearest Nusra gunmen and all hell broke loose. Gunfire sprayed into the Nusra fighters, dropping two of them instantly. A third and fourth tried to run. The survivor, covered in white dust, looked like a ghost as he shot them both in the back. Catching sight of Ramon, the survivor then turned his newly acquired rifle on the Liquid Sky mercenary.
Ramon cursed as he ducked behind the rubble while 7.62 rounds chiseled away at his cover.
“Get up there,” Ramon yelled at the other Nusra fighters who were also seeking cover in the rubble. “Flank around and surround him!”
Only by making some hand and arm signals did the Nusra fighters begin to understand, but by then it was too late. A couple grenade blasts covered the survivor’s withdrawal. By the time Ramon got the jihadists moving and flanked around the side of the building, the survivor had already disappeared.
Ramon was about to radio in to Bill and tell him what had happened when he heard a grunt behind him.
It was The Operator pulling himself out through the basement window. From close up, there was no mistaking the identity this time.
“Where is Deckard?” The Operator asked as he got to his feet and began dusting himself off.
“Broke contact,” Ramon replied. “Headed south.”
“Into no-man’s land. Nowhere else for him to go.”
“Where is Rick?”
The Operator looked straight through Ramon with piercing blue eyes. His face was completely expressionless.
“Didn’t make it.”
The shadows were growing long, providing a place for Deckard to hide as he crept from cover to cover. He slid from behind a pile of debris to a wrecked truck and then back to another pile of rubble. He was running on fumes and he knew it. Constant combat had taken its toll. He needed to reset and get his systems back up. First he needed a hide site for the night.
There was a row of several blocks of buildings that made up a no-man’s land between the Nusra front and the Syrian Army lines. Most of the structures were blown out and partially collapsed. A few were relatively intact. Deckard was dragging his feet as he stayed low and entered the nearest building. There was no electricity in the city and using a flashlight while trapped between warring factions at night was a surefire way to get nailed with another artillery strike. He needed to get situated before the sun went down.
Both sides also seemed to know that fighting would be limited during periods of darkness since both lacked proper night vision equipment. They were getting in their final RPG and recoilless rifle shots before the sun went down.
The stench of rot invaded Deckard’s nostrils as he moved into the building.
He knew what it was before he even saw it. Turning into a living room he saw the bodies lined up on the floor. Taking a step closer, he could see how they had been shot. Execution style, to the back of the head. The children had been shot through the top of their heads by adults who were pointing the guns downward at them, the exit wounds then being through their mouths or jaws. Their parents and grandparents lay beside them, murdered in the same manner.
It was the ghosts. The Alawite death squad that Tiger had told them about. For once, Deckard regretted that Liquid Sky hadn’t found someone and scalped them. Having missed them at the Syrian base camp, the ghosts were prowling the city, executing civilians in a brutal attempt to coerce the civilian population into compliance with government forces.
Each apartment Deckard came to, he found a similar scene. Bodies on top of bodies. Flies feasting on the dead. Entire generations of dead piled on top of each other: parents, grandparents, and children.
The murders, the smell of death, it triggered an old familiar feeling in Deckard. It wasn’t rage. He was always angry. What he felt now was something he hadn’t felt in a long time.
It was certainty.
His knees cracked as he grabbed on to the railing and pulled himself up the stairs. After all the disgust and all the doubt that he had felt as he infiltrated Liquid Sky, he now knew that there was no question that his mission was just. American Special Operations soldiers were the good guys. For former operators like those in Liquid Sky to sink to the depths they had was unacceptable. They could engage in whatever rationalizations they wanted, but it was still wrong. No amount of mental gymnastics would ever justify cold-blooded murder.
The death squads had to be put out of business, whether they were Syrian or American was irrelevant at this point.
Climbing to the third floor, he began looking for a place to spend the night. As he searched around, Deckard did some of the math in his head. Zach was dead in Bahrain. He had just shot and killed Paul. The Operator had killed Rick for him. That left Ramon, Nadeesha, The Operator, and Bill. He had some rapport with Ramon and Nadeesha until today, but that wouldn’t get him anywhere now. Bill almost certainly had them all out hunting him down.
Finding an empty apartment, Deckard stayed away from the windows as he made a quick sweep. It was empty. Sitting on the floor, he powered up his satellite phone while he continued to run the numbers. Ramon was an intel specialist and sniper. Nadeesha was a manipulator and intel gatherer. The Operator was a lunatic. Bill was a human wrecking ball. He would be taking the fight to them while trapped between the Syrian military, Hezbollah, the ghosts, and Nusra with Samruk International in the mix somewhere. That, and a couple chemical weapons thrown in just because things were not difficult enough already.
It was a suicide mission, but then, it had been all along.
As the phone reached out and made contact with a satellite, Deckard began typing out a message:
Cover blown. On my own. Somewhere between Nusra and Army lines.
A few seconds later, Pat responded to this text:
Heavy contact. Not even sure who we are fighting. We’re pushing up to the front but I need you to mark on map where you are and where last loc of wpns was.
Deckard went into the map feature and marked his current location and roughly where he had been when he shot Paul. The chemical weapons had surely been moved since then, but not far. Liquid Sky could not push forward into the Syrian Army lines and could not retreat to the rear with Samruk coming up behind them. That left them with limited maneuver room on their flanks. Deckard typed out the tactical situation to Pat as well and sent it along. Another incoming message came in half a minute later.
We’ll move as far up as we can tonight. Sorry dude, can’t help you until we link up.
There was nothing to be sorry for, of course. They were in an impossible situation. The sun had almost set beneath the skyline of the ruined city by the time Deckard went looking for food and water. With the electricity out, everything in the refrigerator had rotted. He managed to find some canned food and a couple warm cans of soda. In a nearby apartment he was able to scrounge up a bottle of water.
Setting his stash of supplies in the corner of one room, he scooped up an empty soup can to use to construct a booby trap. Using a cinderblock that had fallen from one of the walls, Deckard wedged the soup can under it near the stairwell. Then he pushed one of his hand grenades inside the soup can. Using a piece of string he found, he then tied a knot around the grenade and the other end of it to a pipe sticking out of the wall. Finally, he very carefully removed the pin from the grenade. The spoon of the grenade was held in place by the soup can which prevented it from detonating, at least until someone came walking up the steps and hit the trip wire.
With his early warning system in place, Deckard covered himself in a blanket to keep warm in the cool desert air. It was dark as he began tearing into the food. His mind and body were sluggish, moving in slow motion, and he knew he had to replenish himself. Tomorrow was another day. Even on his best day, he might not have enough to survive what was coming.
All he could do was hope that he had enough left in him to complete his mission.