This story is something of an experiment. I thought it might interest a few people... Chapter One<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-comfficeffice" /> ...In pursuit of Operation Soaring Eagle, <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-comffice:smarttags" /><st1:country-region><st1lace>US</st1lace></st1:country-region> Marines are carrying operations in a certain place, at a certain time, in a certain country. They’re not giving anything away tonight, folks. -AP News Report, 2015 “It’s quiet,” Gunnery Sergeant David Bass muttered. “It's too quiet.” Lieutenant Art Russell swallowed several responses that came to mind, none of which were very helpful. The twenty-four Force Recon Marines had spent the last few hours walking from the <st1:stockticker>FOB</st1:stockticker> to the small complex up ahead, hoping that the insurgents – Taliban, terrorists or simply drug runners – wouldn’t notice the advancing American force. The locals were thoroughly cowed by the enemy and, despite the presence of most of the 1<SUP>st</SUP> Marine Division, weren't inclined to offer aid and comfort to the Americans. Art couldn’t blame them. The day the Marines had moved into the area, a local headman and his family had been beheaded – the women had been raped first, according to the locals – as a warning to others who might be considering assisting the enemy. The Marines couldn’t count on any help and, if a local who had a cell phone saw them, he might just call them in to the enemy. He rubbed his forehead, cursing the headache that had appeared several hours after they’d departed the base and made their way towards the small cluster of buildings. No one who had never seen <st1:country-region><st1lace>Afghanistan</st1lace></st1:country-region> would believe that it could get so hot, but Art – who had served two terms in <st1:country-region><st1lace>Iraq</st1lace></st1:country-region> – had rarely been in a hotter country. The heat beat down on the Marines, sending rivers of sweat running down their backs, despite the latest cooling battledress. His aching head was just another problem. He should have called it in, he knew, and allowed someone else to take his place, but he was no quitter. Besides, calling for a helicopter to evacuate him back to the <st1:stockticker>FOB</st1:stockticker> would have blown their cover. The NATO forces in the area had been quietly placed on alert to support the Marines if they needed it, yet they’d been told to stay away from the complex. The last thing they needed was to alert the High Value Target – <st1:stockticker>HVT</st1:stockticker> – who was supposed to be based there. “No argument,” Art muttered back. The small complex – nine small buildings and one large complex, clearly built during the Soviet occupation of <st1:country-region><st1lace>Afghanistan</st1lace></st1:country-region> – appeared deserted, at least from the outside. But then, he knew better than to assume that that proved anything. The Taliban had a good idea of just how good the American surveillance and communications systems actually were and knew better than to show their faces without good cause. A seemingly-deserted building might hold an entire enemy unit, hidden away under cover. Or maybe the locals had abandoned the area after the Russians had pulled out and left it alone. <st1:country-region><st1lace>Afghanistan</st1lace></st1:country-region> was a land of contradictions, where timeless beauty went hand-in-hand with mindless brutality and enough barbarity to make a Roman Emperor sick. “Spread out and check the area. My spider-sense is tingling.” Bass nodded wordlessly and use his hands to signal to the other Marines, who slowly started to creep out around the buildings. If they were seen, a fire-fight would break out almost at once, but the Force Recon troops were expert in operating without being seen. They’d trained against opposition forces with night-vision gear and the latest in remote sensing equipment, although they’d also trained in low-tech environments. The Marine Corps had been in the forefront of counter-insurgency campaigns for a long time and knew that a low-tech environment could be just as dangerous as a high-tech environment, perhaps more so. There were too many people in the rear who would refuse to believe in the existence of an enemy force if it wasn't radiating radio or cell phone transmissions, but the Marines on the ground knew better. The enemy could be anywhere, or anyone. The headache refused to fade as the reports came back through his earpiece. The Marines used a subvocal communications system to allow them to talk to one another without being overheard, or detected by any means the Taliban were known to possess. Art had never taken that for granted; the Russians or the Chinese might well have sold them some advanced detection gear, perhaps calculating that the longer the Americans stayed bogged down in Afghanistan, the greater the chance they’d have to reshape their regions to their own best advantage. The Russians hated the Taliban, but if they were willing to get into bed with the Nazis, they’d probably be willing to get into bed with the Taliban as well. His lips quirked into an amused smile as he contemplated the mental image for a long moment and then shook his head, dismissing the thought. Headache or no headache, he had a job to do. “The snipers are in position,” Bass said, as he crawled back to where Art was waiting. He gave the Lieutenant a concerned look as he settled up next to him. The NCO had over twenty-five years of experience in the Marine Corps – he’d taken out plenty of green lieutenants before and saved them from making stupid and career-ending mistakes – and he could probably sense that something was wrong. “There’s still no sign of…” “Contact,” one of the snipers hissed. Art froze at once, feeling his body and mind jerk into overdrive. The absence of gunshots probably meant that they hadn’t been spotted, but the enemy could be playing it cute. “I have four jingly trucks on their way up to the complex, each one carrying at least twelve bearded men.” Art and Bass shared a glance. The Taliban, among the other bizarre rules they had fought to impose on <st1:country-region><st1lace>Afghanistan</st1lace></st1:country-region>, insisted that every man should have a beard – and jailed everyone who refused to grow one. The presence of beards meant nothing in and of itself, but there were no Afghanistan National Army or Afghanistan National Police units in the area. Anyone coming to the complex was almost certainly hostile. The presence of so many men suggested that they had something else in mind than a social visit. Did they intend to escort the <st1:stockticker>HVT</st1:stockticker> out of the area? He frowned as he pulled his terminal out of his belt and accessed the direct feed from the orbiting UAV, so high up that no one, even Bass, could see that it was there. The trucks had been tracked as soon as they’d entered the area, coming out of no man’s land to the south, towards <st1:country-region><st1lace>Pakistan</st1lace></st1:country-region>. It was another strike against them. Anything crossing from <st1:country-region><st1lace>Pakistan</st1lace></st1:country-region> to <st1:country-region><st1lace>Afghanistan</st1lace></st1:country-region> should have been declared at the border, but then no one would bother unless they were stopped at gunpoint. Art found it hard to blame them. Years ago, someone in the West had drawn arbitrary lines on a map and separated <st1:country-region><st1lace>Afghanistan</st1lace></st1:country-region> from <st1:country-region><st1lace>Pakistan</st1lace></st1:country-region> – it had been part of <st1:country-region><st1lace>India</st1lace></st1:country-region> at the time – and torn tribes and families in half. The tribesmen refused to accept the border as possessing any influence on their lives and crossed it freely, creating lines of communication that could be used by the Taliban and their supporters. <st1:country-region><st1lace>Afghanistan</st1lace></st1:country-region> was a witch’s brew of factions, each one determined to see that they came out on top, with NATO in the middle. Bass tapped his side. “Sir,” he muttered, as the trucks came into view. “Look!” Art followed his gaze. The large building at the centre of the complex had suddenly come to life. Seven men had appeared at one side of the building, one of them very familiar. Mullah Mohammed, as he called himself, had a sizable price on his head for terrorism and other crimes against humanity. He was, at least as far as NATO intelligence could put together, the Taliban’s district commander, with control over terrorist groups and cells in the entire region. He’d been marked for capture or death as soon as NATO had identified him, but no one had tracked him down, until now. He watched as men leapt off the trucks and embraced their comrades. The Marines were heavily outnumbered, yet Art found it hard to care. They had the greatest weapon of all on their side. No one suspected their presence. He keyed his radio, taking care to keep his voice below hearing level. The tiny mike on his throat would pick up the words and transmit it to the waiting Marines. “Get ready to move,” he ordered, scanning the remaining enemy fighters as they clambered out of the truck. They moved rather unprofessionally, part of his mind noted; they clearly weren't expecting trouble. His headache seemed to grow worse every time he looked at one of the enemy fighters, so he tried to look away from them. He checked his equipment with one hand as the Marines checked in, the snipers leading the way. The enemy, nicely bunched up as they were, would provide easy targets for the sharpshooters. Even the Taliban had learned to fear the NATO snipers. “I’m calling the contact in now.” Art tapped his terminal, sending the call to arms back to the Marine <st1:stockticker>FOB</st1:stockticker> ten miles to the north, and then checked his weapon one final time. The attack helicopters would be spinning up their rotors now, preparing to come out and join the fun; the transport helicopters, carrying additional Marines, would be right after them. The fighters and bombers NATO kept orbiting over the area – a mixture of American, British, French, German and Dutch aircraft – would be receiving the alert seconds later. A thunderstorm was gathering and it was about to poor itself down onto the unsuspecting terrorists. They had no idea of what was coming their way. He keyed his radio again. “Go,” he ordered. His headache sparked and he winced in pain. Bass frowned, but said nothing. “Open fire.” The snipers opened fire at once. They were used to firing from much greater ranges than they were faced with and the enemy fighters didn’t stand a chance. One by one, they started to topple over before they realised that they were under attack, the ones who had been identified as commanders going first. A handful started to blaze back towards the snipers with AK-47 rifles, but their bursts went wide off the mark. The Marine Corps trained its snipers well and armed them with the best; there was literally no flash for the enemy to use as a target. The smarter enemy fighters – including the Mullah, Art noted absently – had ducked back into the complex, trusting in its Russian-built walls to protect them from enemy fire. They were probably right. The Russians might have deliberately built ugly and soulless buildings – the true nature of communism could be seen in the buildings the communists had gifted their unwilling allies – but they were strong and certainly resistant to sniper fire. A single air-dropped bomb would smash the building, of course, yet there would be no chance of taking the <st1:stockticker>HVT</st1:stockticker> alive. Art swallowed a curse as enemy fighters began firing from the buildings. Their shooting wasn't particularly accurate, thankfully, but it was making life interesting for the snipers and the other men, who were crawling closer and closer to their targets. His radio buzzed with a report of four men who had attempted to escape from the other side of the building, only to run into fire from the three Marines who were advancing on the enemy rear. The four men were dead and the Marines had the remaining enemy forces trapped. A smart enemy commander would have offered to surrender, but the Taliban rarely surrendered, even when their enemy wouldn’t simply kill them out of hand. <st1:country-region><st1lace>Afghanistan</st1lace></st1:country-region>’s warrior mentality bred tough fighters. The ones who learned to think like true soldiers were formidable opponents. He picked himself up and half-ran down towards the complex, while the snipers provided covering fire from their positions. Now that every enemy soldier in the open was dead, the snipers had started to fire into the buildings, aiming their shots through portholes that had been used as enemy firing positions. The snipers who saw their opponents could shoot them, perhaps even kill them, even when they were firing from cover. The ones who couldn’t see their targets directly could still discourage the enemy from firing by shooting a handful of shots through the portholes. Who knew – perhaps the ricochets would take out an enemy fighter or two. A deafening explosion echoed across the compound as one of the trucks blew up. Art’s radio buzzed a second later, filling him in; the enemy had attempted to use one of them as a firing position, so a Marine had tossed a grenade into the vehicle. The force of the explosion suggested that the truck had been transporting goods and ammunition to the Taliban in the area, ammunition that would be turned against the Marines and the remainder of the NATO forces. The Marine who had tossed the grenade was uninjured, but stunned, so Art ordered him to stay back until he had recovered. His headache was growing worse… He pressed himself against the side of one of the smaller buildings, certain – somehow – that there were still enemy forces inside. There was only one way into the building – through the door – and he cursed under his breath. The enemy would have to know that, because no one larger than a child could fit through the portholes that passed for windows. The Taliban had been known to use children as suicide bombers – sometimes knowingly, sometimes without telling them what was at stake – and Art kept one eye on the window, even as he pulled a grenade off his belt. Bass caught his arm and shook his head, motioning for two of the junior Marines to lead the way. Art wanted to swear at him – if something happened to Art, Bass was perfectly capable of running the entire force on his own – but there was no time for an argument. The lead Marine held up five fingers and counted down, while the others prepared their grenades. At zero, they tossed their grenades through the window and explosions shattered the door. A moment later, the Marines were through the remains of the door, weapons raised and looking for trouble. There were seven enemy bodies in the room and one living enemy fighter, who Art suspected rather wished he was dead. His legs had been blown off and he was bleeding badly from a gash in his left arm. His radio buzzed as the Marines reported in. The smaller buildings had been cleared of enemy – at a cost; two Marines had been injured by the enemy as they struggled to escape the trap – but the large building was still occupied by the enemy. Art scowled as the Marines reformed outside the building, readying themselves for the final assault. There was no time to waste. The Mullah might, like several other Taliban leaders had done, take his own life when he realised that there was no way to escape. Art hated the Taliban for what they did in order to fight their way, yet even he had to respect such an act. It didn’t change the problem, however; the Marines needed to take him alive, if possible. Bass glanced at him and then used hand-signals to get the Marines ready for an assault. The longer the enemy had to get ready to fight, the harder it was going to be to clear the building. The snipers could keep the enemy away from the windows, but they’d have plenty of room inside to manoeuvre, particularly if they’d prepared the building for an attack. The Marines had looked for any details they could find on the interior of the building, but they’d found nothing. The Russians had claimed that the files had been lost. Who knew – they might even be telling the truth. Art gritted his teeth against the headache and nodded, signalling for the assault to begin. One Marine used shaped charges to blow down the door; two more threw grenades into the opening, attempting to kill the enemy before they could pick off the incoming Marines. There was a brief burst of machine gun fire, a pair of explosions and the fire dropped off sharply. The Marines slipped through the door, weapons raised, and opened fire when they saw four more enemy fighters lifting their own weapons. A burst of fire from above pinned down two Marines before a third fired a long burst up the stairs and silenced the enemy gunner. Art, Bass and two other Marines advanced to a door, threw in three grenades and followed them into the room. The room was deserted. The interior of the building was a dark nightmarish maze. Art pressed onwards, feeling his headache pounding inside his skull. From time to time, an enemy fighter would pop out of hiding, scream Allah Ackbar and open fire, forcing the Marines to gun him down before he could find his bearings. The enemy didn’t seem to have scattered IEDs through the building, thankfully, but they were successfully delaying the Marines. God alone knew where the Mullah and his inner circle had gone. Art had kept his bearings, yet he had no idea how one part of the massive building related to the other parts. A burst of firing up ahead concentrated his mind on staying alive. The enemy had taken up a strong position in the semi-darkness, using a Russian machine gun to force the Marines to stay back by firing from time to time. Art struggled to locate them, straining every sense he had as he listened for sounds of movement in-between the bursts of fire and… …Something snapped in his head. A torrent of noise, of screaming and shouting, poured into his mind. He barely heard Bass calling his name as the pain worsened and the noise grew louder. His head seemed to explode as he screamed, feeling blood trickling down from his nose and ears… …And then he collapsed into blackness.