Pat cursed as machine gun fire rattled his vehicle.
It was the third time that night and they had only been in Syria a matter of hours. Tartus had been an obvious no-go to make port in so they had to come in at a much smaller port to the north. The logistics themselves were an absolute nightmare. With such a time crunch there was no way he was going to be able to get Samruk International’s gun trucks into country. That alone put them at a major disadvantage. They had to use their operational funds to buy four two and half ton trucks in Egypt and travel with them by boat to Cyprus and then on to Syria. He didn’t even like to think about how much he had to bribe the ship’s captain to run a Han Solo style pirate run on the Syrian coast to drop them off.
They were gunning it through their third ambush. In addition, they had bribed their way through one checkpoint on the road and shot through another. This was the fight to get to the fight. The only good news was that he had a platoon of trained and battle-hardened Kazakh mercenaries. From the beds of the transport trucks, they returned fire on enemy positions up in the cliffs to their side. Led by Western advisers like Kurt Jager of Germany’s GSG-9 and Leszek of Polish GROM, Samruk International definitely had their shit wired tighter than the regime thugs or the rabble that passed for a rebellion that they had encountered thus far.
The problem was that they could still be nickled and dimed until they were a bloody mess by the time they rolled into Homs in the morning. Out here they had no support, no back up, no resupply.
Another thing they didn’t have was an update from Deckard. The last text he had gotten from the cell phone Aghassi had left for him was that the mission had the green light and they would be jumping in tonight on a drop zone near Homs.
By daylight, they would need to have something from him. Driving into Homs blind was a death sentence with the city divided down the middle by rebels and regime forces who were slugging it out block by block. The pictures that had emerged from the war torn city looked like Stalingrad in World War Two.
The only thing they had going in their favor, and it wasn’t much, was a local fixer named Ali. Pat had called a friend in the intelligence community to get a recommendation for someone local. They picked Ali up on the side of the road in Tartus after wiring him half of his fee. He lived just outside Homs and could help guide them into their targets. So far, he hadn’t been much good at helping them avoid ambushes and checkpoints.
All they needed was to cross the rest of the war-torn landscape to Homs, get comms with Deckard, and then shoot their way in to secure two chemicals weapons, destroy them, and then shoot their way out.
“Fuck,” Pat cursed as a RPG streaked through the night to their front. The rocket blasted deeper into the valley and exploded harmlessly against the rocks on the other side. One RPG, one well-placed IED, and they could be put out of business. At least the enemy didn’t have much night-vision capability, giving them the advantage at night. Samruk’s driver drove blacked-out while looking through NODs.
The pop-pop-pop of AK-103’s sounded in the back of Pat’s truck as his men returned fire.
Cupping a hand over the screen, Pat looked at his handheld GPS. They were about to cruise past Masyaf. It was a medium-sized town but at least they were clearing out of the valleys and into the flatlands. Soon they would be halfway to Homs.
Another round of AK fire vibrated the truck.
Pat knew that the night was far from over.
“Get up front and take the lead, Deckard,” Bill said.
“Because you speak Arabic, and so that you can absorb the first couple bullets.”
“Go up ahead and make nice with the jihadists. We haven’t got all night.”
Deckard took the lead, shuffling forward with the weight of his rucksack on his back. He held his Kalashnikov at the ready. Liquid Sky followed at an uncomfortable distance from him, hauling the two chemical weapons with them.
As he got closer to the road, he could see some movement. Some of the jihadists were standing and others looked to be popping a squat. Deckard intentionally made noise as he approached so that they knew he was coming. The last thing he wanted was a surprised jihadist pointing a weapon at him.
“As-salamu alaykum,” Deckard greeted them when he noticed several of the dark forms turn towards him.
“Ilnash sharaf intuu wiyaana,” someone answered in Iraqi dialect.
Deckard knew he was entering a world of shit. The Iraqi brand of Al Qaeda, The Islamic State of Iraq, had massive bounties out on the heads of people just like him.
The jihadists gathered around Deckard. There were about two dozen of them. To his surprise, they held their AK-47s at the ready, weapons on safe, with their fingers off the triggers. These guys had combat training. The war had been going on for a few years though, so maybe it had more to do with military Darwinism: only the hardcores were still left standing.
One of them, this one with a North African accent, asked him about his trip. Deckard told a joke about falling from the sky and to his relief the Islamic extremists chuckled. All except one. He was a little bigger than the others, light skinned, and with a massive black beard. Chechen. He was eye-raping Deckard up and down.
After the exchange of pleasantries, Deckard waved for Liquid Sky to come in and meet the Nusra fighters. The Liquid Sky mercenaries set down the bombs and Deckard introduced them by first names only. There was a sudden grumble amongst the Nusra fighters when he introduced Nadi. They hadn’t realized that there was a woman in the group.
They should have anticipated this. In the world the Nusra fighters fought for, strict Islamic law called Sharia would be the law of the land. This Bronze-Age mentality dictated that women were baby factories and domestic slaves. He had to think fast.
“Nadi and I are bound by contractual marriage,” Deckard said. “She belongs to me. She is our technician who went to university to learn how to build and detonate the bombs we brought with us.”
This brought on another series of strained groans.
The Chechen interrupted the Nusra complaints.
“This is acceptable,” he said in nearly perfect English. “But you are responsible. She goes no where without you.”
“I understand,” Deckard assured him, but he knew that he hadn’t heard the last of this. He decided to change the subject.
“I want to you to take a look at the gifts we have brought Nusra,” Deckard told the group. “This gift comes down to you from the eyes of Allah. These weapons will strike terror into the hearts of your enemyies, destroy their will to fight.”
“Allah akbar,” several Nusra fighters said in unison. God is great.
The two chemical weapons were presented to the Nusra fighters along with a small haul of exotic high end pistols and sub-machine guns that they had packed in their rucks after having them shipped in from Libya. Each Nusra fighter present got a party favor.
Deckard pointed to the two Mazda flatbed trucks parked alongside the road.
“Can we load the weapons on your trucks and drive to your camp?” Deckard asked.
The Chechen fighter wagged his finger at Deckard. Bill and the Liquid Sky team stood by and watched as the Nusra fighters began talking over each other in rapid-fire Arabic. Nadi was the only other team member who could even begin to keep up with the conversation. Deckard had to ask them to slow down several times.
Bill, Ramon, Rick, and Paul began to get twitchy, their thumbs slowly rotating the selector switches on their rifles from safe to semi. This mission looked to them like it was about to go south in a bad way. The Operator stood facing the Nusra fighters stoically.
“Deckard,” Bill said, trying to interrupt the frantic conversation. They continued talking back and forth in Arabic.
“What the fuck is going on?”
“We have a problem.”
“They want us to hit a Republican Guard outpost on the way to Homs with them.”
“Tell them that’s not what we’re here for Deckard.”
“I did. The soldiers working out of that outpost are making their lives miserable but the real reason they want to take it out is to capture the four T-72 tanks there. They say that they need those tanks if we plan to go to Damascus. There are just too many military checkpoints on the road between there and Homs. We need heavy firepower to clear the way for us.”
“The rebels are taking out dozens and dozens of enemy armor every day,” Ramon complained. “What the fuck is this about?”
“Our intel supports what they are saying about the road to Damascus though,” Nadi said. “We are going to have a hell of a time getting there.”
The Operator’s single word cut through the night.
“They are testing us. They want to see firsthand if we have what it takes before they commit their fighters to a virtual suicide mission in Damascus.”
“Fuck me,” Rick said.
“So be it. We’ll show them we have what it takes and then some,” Bill said. “Deckard, tell them that we just need them to show us where the target is.”
When Deckard translated several more shouts of Allah akbar went up.
After loading up the mustard gas bombs on the back of one of the flatbeds, Liquid Sky piled on along with the Nusra fighters. The drivers didn’t dare turn on their headlights, not with MIG fighter jets somewhere overhead, so they just drove slowly in the dark.
The fight to get to the fight, Deckard thought. What could go wrong?
He wondered if Pat and his Samruk International mercenaries were doing any better.
The rocky hillside almost looked translucent under the moonlight. The jihadists may have been fundamentalist nutcases, but they knew war. This wasn’t their first rodeo. They had seen combat from Libya to Iraq to Afghanistan, just like the Special Operations units that hunted them. Nusra was now the most effective fighting force in Syria. They wisely decided upon an offset infiltration. Parking their trucks, they left them under guard while the assault forces stalked up to the Syrian military outpost.
The chemical weapons were safe for the time being. They could not be detonated without the eight digit number combination and even if the Nusra guards tried to disappear with the bombs the GPS built into them would guarantee that it would only be a matter of time before an American or Israeli airstrike rained death down upon them.
The fighters snaked their way up the hill, the Chechen leading the way. Deckard found out that he was called Tiger by the other Nusra fighters, a war name he had been given by them for his bravery under fire. It was clear by now that Tiger was familiar with the terrain and that he had reconned the area previously. The Operator had been correct, this was a test. Nusra could have raided the outpost anytime they wanted.
Nearing the top of the hill, Deckard climbed hand over hand as he and the Chechen slowly crept their way to the crest. As he looked down on the military outpost he nearly choked. They were right on top of the hard site. The Chechen had got them within ten meters of the nearest T-72 tank. There were three other tanks arrayed within a perimeter protected by a circular dirt berm. Several OD green canvas tents housed the soldiers, and there was even a small cooking fire.
“Ghosts,” the Chechen told him in Arabic. His curly black beard bounced as he spoke each word. “They often sneak into Homs under the cover of dark to do their dirty work. Tonight we use the cover of dark to strike back against these devils.”
Deckard had heard of the Ghosts before. Scattered reports had hit the Western media, but the real horror story was unknown to those living back in the States. Assad was an Alawite, a Muslim minority group seen as heretical by both Sunni and Shia. In Syria, the Alawites made up a large portion of the political elite. It was one more reason why they fought the civil war with such vigor. There could be no negotiated peace as their religious group would be wiped out if they lost the war.
When the protests in Syria had really turned into an armed rebellion, some of these political elites organized Alawite death squads. Their job was to literally terrify the Syrian people into compliance. They would go into villages and execute entire families with shots to the back of the head. Saw the heads off little girls. Rape wives and daughters. Send a message.
The death squads were called Shabeeha. Apparitions. Ghosts.
Deckard was warming to this idea of attacking the outpost. This might be some good target practice after all, provided it didn’t get them all killed. One by one, the Nusra fighters and Liquid Sky mercenaries edged up to the assault line. A few soldiers below seemed to be milling around, having a smoke or taking a piss. He didn’t hear any motors so the tanks were clearly not running, probably in order to save fuel. Syria’s logistics lines were stretched pretty thin this late in the game.
“All we need to do is ambush from here,” Tiger whispered.
The Liquid Sky members caught one word even in Arabic. Amboush.
“I have already assigned teams to secure the tanks. We have the high ground and will fight down to them before the infidels can get in their tanks.”
“Then let’s do this,” Deckard replied.
Tiger shouldered his AK-47. The others queued off of the Nusra leader. Two of them had carried PKM machine guns up to the assault line. A few others had RPKs with 40 round magazines. Dropping the selector on his AK one click down, Tiger opened fire on auto. He raked the nearest tent with 7.62 rounds as the entire assault line suddenly lit up the camp with green tracer fire. The rocks around them blinked in and out with orange light as their muzzle flashes flickered like strobe lights.
The machine guns fired down into the camp. Sparking off the tanks, blasting into the tents, kicking up dirt everywhere else. Mostly kicking up dirt. Deckard had too much target fixation to notice that as he focused in on the individual soldiers he could see below and pumped two shots into each. One by one they crumpled to the ground.
A single Syrian soldier scrambled to his tank. He made it as far as the hatch before Rick put a bullet in his face. The would-be tank gunner rolled off the side of the tank and took a dirt nap. The PKM gunners both went empty at the same time, an amateur move that happened because they didn’t stagger their fire. Slapping in fresh belts of ammunition, the riflemen cracked off a few shots here and there as signs of life were spotted below but the camp was pretty quiet.
“What the fuck Deckard?” Bill asked. “Get these hodjis moving.”
Deckard turned to the Chechen but he was already jumping to his feet.
“Allah akbar!” he yelled and charged down into the camp. Without missing a beat, the Nusra fighters followed their leader, descending down the rocks to the outpost.
When they got to the bottom the jihadists scattered, breaking off into their pre-assigned teams and taking control of the four tanks. Others went into the tents searching for survivors. Bodies were scattered around the camp. Most of them had been attempting to flee.
“The ghosts are not here,” Tiger said to Deckard. “They must be out. This isn’t good.”
“We can catch up with them later. At least we got the tanks. Now we can complete our mission,” Deckard reassured him.
“If God wills it.”
Suddenly, voices began shouting in the night. Turning, Deckard saw Rick pushing a Nusra fighter away from one of the corpses. He had been attempting to rifle through his belongings for some war booty. As he shoved him, the Arab tripped and landed on his back.
“These are our kills,” Rick yelled. “Fuck off.”
The Jihadist cursed as he got to his feet. He looked like he was ready to fight the American until Rick reached for his belt and yanked out a hatchet. Even though they were all carrying guns, the sight of an edged weapons elicited a special kind of fear from the arab. Deckard held his breath. If Rick swung that hatchet on the Nusra fighter they would have a catastrophic loss of rapport, to put it mildly.
Rick did swing the hatchet. Right down on the head of the dead Syrian soldier. He chopped and cut until he reached down and grabbed a fist full of hair. Planting his boot on the corpse’s back, he yanked the scalp right off the skull.
“Allah akbar!” the Chechen shouted.
“Allah akbar!” the jihadists echoed.
Nadi found another Syrian soldier who was still breathing. She fired a couple shots into his groin causing him to jump. Then she put her AK on full auto and blasted off the top of his skull.
“You guys are dragging ass tonight,” Bill said as he came up behind Deckard and walked towards Nadi and Rick. He had a scalp in each hand. Looking over his shoulder, Deckard could see that Paul was also busy chopping away with a hatchet. It was a senseless orgy of violence.
“Forgive me, my brother,” the Chechen said as he leaned towards Deckard. “I had no idea that Americans could be such fierce fighters.”
That was about the worst thing that he possibly could have said to Deckard at that moment. Just witnessing the war crimes was enough to make his skin crawl, being complimented on them was too much.
One by one the T-72 tanks roared the life as the Nusra fighters got them started. They even had ground guides who helped them exit the razor wire switchbacks at the entrance to the outpost. The tanks took off down the road as the Chechen turned on his walkie talkie and informed their base in Homs that four friendly tanks were coming their way.
Deckard reached into his pocket and palmed the satellite enabled cellphone that he had picked up in Mauritius. He knew he was taking a risk every time he turned it on that some eyes or ears in the sky might pick him up. Now was the time to take that risk. He thumbed the power button while keeping the phone in his pocket.
“Now we head back to Homs,” the Chechen told him. “You Americans have proven to be very tough fighters. I am sorry my friend, I never should have doubted you. But God willed it and now we have these tanks to help clear our way to Damascus!”
“No need to apologize,” Deckard said. “I would have done the same.”
It was true, the outpost had been a confidence target.
“Once we get to our staging area in Homs we will prepare the vehicles and your weapons. Let’s hurry. We should get back into the city and under overhead cover before dawn. We own the night, but not the skies.”
The sounds of a Syrian fighter jet somewhere off in the distance seemed to confirm that fact, almost as if on queue. Tracer fire crisscrossed the sky as someone tried to shoot it down.
“Let me tell my team and we can head back to the trucks.”
“Tomorrow is a big day, the night even more so,” the Chechen said, hardly able to contain his glee.
Deckard walked to the edge of the camp and pretended to take a piss. Pulling out the cellphone he quickly typed out a message and texted Pat:
In country, heading to Homs w/ package.
A few seconds later he got a reply.
About an hour out from your loc.
Deckard sent one final message before signing off.
Stand by for grid to tgt. Short timeline. Tmmrw night.
Turning off the phone, he strode off to find Bill and the other Liquid Sky members.
They were on a short time line, even shorter than Liquid Sky realized.