I’m giving NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writer’s Month) a shot this year – where you try to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. It will inevitably turn out pretty crappy, but who cares?
I’ll be posting my daily progress (about 1667 words/day) here – let see where this goes…
The title is “Four Wheels and a Prayer.”
FOUR WHEELS AND A PRAYER
The Milky Way stretched in a starry band overhead, cutting the blue night from horizon to horizon. Two soldiers sat, leaning back, one in a cheap camp chair and the other in a folding vinyl lawn chair, the kind you might’ve seen in somebody’s backyard in the 1980’s with a bored tanning housewife stretched out on it. Of course, this wasn’t anybody’s backyard – Afghanistan pretty much didn’t have a ‘yard’ in it – and it certainly wasn’t the 1980’s. The origins of the chair were mysterious, but it was welcome all the same.
The soldier in the vinyl chair pulled a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket, grabbed a Zippo from his hip pocket, and proceeded to light up a cigarette. The lighter flared briefly, a stark orange contrast in the night-world of blue; then a steady orange glow as he took a long drag.
“Holland, you shouldn’t smoke on the perimeter, you know,” said the other, without looking, absently stroking the rifle in his lap.
“Who gives a shit?,” Holland replied, savoring the smoke. “You know haji ain’t got no night vision. Besides, even if he did, he can’t hit shit from over there.” Gesturing with his cigarette, he asked, “Sjostad, how far is the perimeter line from here?”
“Three hundred thirty-eight meters.”
“Right. So who’s gonna hit a damn thing in the middle of the night with an AK-47 when they can’t hit us fifty meters away in broad daylight?”
“That’s not the point,” Sjostad replied, picking up his rifle and resting in on the low wall of the roof. “You saw the report last week. It’s not just Joe Haji out there anymore. It’s -”
Holland waved his hand. “Right, right. Iranian special forces. Big fuckin’ deal. Look, if those guys are so damn good, why don’t they – ”
His sentence was cut short by the wicked zing of a passing bullet – close, but not too close. Holland dropped his cigarette and burst into hysterical laughter. “Ha ha! Those motherfuckers! Did you see that shit?” Sjostad just grinned and shaking his head before leaning back into his rifle.
“Two dismounts, about eleven o’clock, prone in the ditch just off the road. Distance…four forty-five.”
Holland had rolled off his lawn chair and was next to Sjostad, his binoculars in hand. “You got it. Holy shit, does that guy have a friggin’ starlight scope on his rifle?”
“You mean like Vietnam War – style starlight scope?” He replied between breaths, his breathing slowing and becoming more steady, preparing to make a shot.
“Yeah, I think so. The objective lens is bigger than his fucking head! OK, I’m gonna hit him with the laser. Won’t know what hit him…take the shot after I blind him.”
With that, Sjostad centered the distant enemy in his reticle, just a little green figure in his own (much more advanced) night vision scope, and slowed his breathing even more. In, out, pause…in, out, pause…a steady rhythm, focusing his thoughts until nothing existed except the faintly glowing reticle centered on the green form of the Iranian soldier.
“Ready…laser on.” Holland’s voice was low and smooth as he pressed the “lase” button on his binoculars. The soldier in Sjostad’s scope jumped back like something just bit him on the face – his eye wouldn’t have been damaged by the laser but it would’ve been like shining a 60-lumen flashlight right in your eye on a dark night, enough to startle anyone – and Sjostad pressed the trigger. The rifle spoke a muffled “whup” and the scope-carrying soldier crumpled in a heap.
Sjostad shifted left slightly to center on the other soldier – his spotter, no doubt – and he was, somewhat surprisingly, stock-still. It was a sign of good training; the Iranian knew that he was basically screwed regardless of his actions, and that needless flailing around would only draw attention to his position. He knew that he was facing an enemy with a superior position and superior observation, so all he could hope was that he hadn’t yet been spotted.
But, of course, he had – and Sjostad understood his predicament even as he squeezed the trigger a second time, dropping the spotter where he lay.
“Nice shooting, Karl,” Holland said, confirming the kills and panning the scene for any other infiltrators. “Looks clear for now. I’ll call it in.”
An hour later, Holland and Sjostad were in their room, in pants and t-shirts, cleaning their rifles. The bare fluorescent tubes overhead were harsh and alien, and Karl wished (as he often did) that he could take them out and somehow cut a skylight in the ceiling and let in the sun and moon and stars. The fluorescents made him cranky – maybe it was the 60-Hz flicker that bothered him, something that he swore he could see but few others even noticed.
Their room was a decent size for two men, maybe twenty by ten feet, but it still felt cramped because of the piles of gear that lay in each corner. Any attempt to keep the room in a state of order had long since gone out the window; and anyway, the room – and the whole FOB (Forward Operating Base) – was sort of a dump anyway, having been abandoned since the early 2000’s before Task Force Pontiac had moved in. The walls were bare cracked concrete, sloppily painted an off-white color, and the floor was a muddled dirty carpet that was probably quite moldy. Even so, any mold smell was masked by the ever-present burnt aroma of the desert – the weird sandy smell permeated everything and mixed with everything, making some smells more pleasant and many less so. Their body armor smelled like sand (sweaty sand, really); their clothes, dirty sand; their TV smelled like plasticky sand; their boots, sand with leather on it; and even their rifles smelled like sand mixed with weapon lube.
“Hey Karl, throw me your cleaning rod, will you?,” Holland called from across the room.
“Where’s yours?” Karl felt a sudden bristle of irritation at the request. All this crap we’ve got in here, and he doesn’t have a rod? Can’t he keep track of any of his shit?
“Jones borrowed it last week and hasn’t given it back, the ass.”
Karl sighed. “Here.” He walked the rod over and handed it to him. As he did so, there was a knock on the door.
“What?,” they both yelled, in unison. The door swung open and like a scene from some sitcom, a man stuck his head in with a goofy look on his face.
“What’s up, guys?”
Holland laughed. “Speak of the devil…where’s my cleaning rod, fucker?”
“Fuck you. Come and get it if you want it so bad. Anyway, I’m not here to chat. Top wants to see you and the Swede in the TOC, pronto.” His face darkened suddenly, turning serious. “I don’t know what it’s about, but it must be for real. Top told me to ‘please go get Alpha team’ instead of ‘get those stupid assholes over here.’ Don’t know what that means.” With that, he left the room, leaving the door hanging open.
Karl and Holland looked at each other, shrugged in unison, and got up, leaving their rifles on their cots, grabbing their uniform tops as they left.
The TOC – tactical operations center – was in the main room of the FOB’s largest building, what used to be some kind of living room or dining hall or something. Now, it was a darkened warren of map boards, cluttered desks, beeping radios, and high-resolution displays. Above the double-wide entrance doorway was a handmade sign proclaiming the place as “TF Pontiac Headquarters,” which made Karl smile slightly. A couple of the soldiers at the FOB (FOB Rhino, as it was known during the first – or second, if you count the Soviet invasion in the 1980’s – Afghan war) liked to joke that they should be called “Task Force Edsel” instead, since it seemed like everything they did was ad hoc, poorly thought out, or just generally broken. Even their force structure was a jumble – cobbled together from one 5th Special Forces Group A-team, about a platoon’s worth of extra soldiers from various 10th Mountain Division units, and even a handful of exchange soldiers from foreign militaries. These exchange soldiers included one interesting new arrival: a beautiful lieutenant from the Israeli Defense Forces, whose arrival had caused a minor uproar among the FOB’s soldiers, since there were no other women on the base – let alone any attractive ones.
Karl and Holland found the first sergeant standing over a digital map board, his chin in hand. His uniform was filthy and he reeked of cigars – he somehow had the unusual ability to chain smoke cigars, which Karl found disgusting – and his gray hair was a mess. The TOC was in a state of calm, typical for the pre-dawn hour; it seemed like haji didn’t like to come out just before sunup, preferring instead to attack at midnight or dawn.
Holland spoke first. “Hey Top,” using the traditional nickname for a first sergeant, “you called?”
At first, he didn’t respond, staring intently at the map board. The low lights in the TOC and the bright light coming up from the map board gave the first sergeant a kind of carnival-horror look, picking out his pockmarked skin and scraggly mustache and rimming his eye sockets with pale circles. Then: “Sergeant Sjostad, Sergeant Holland, we’ve got a situation and I don’t like it.” He stepped away from the map table, facing them. “You know that we’ve penetrated as far into Iran as Bandar Torkeman on the Caspian Sea, right?” They nodded.