Ha…falling behind already! Oh well…
“Well, the Iranians – with a little help, of course – just dropped an N-virus warhead on our forward positions there.”
Karl’s brow furrowed at the statement, but Holland was nonchalant. “Big deal, right? Our guys are all vaccinated.”
Top shook his head. “Not these guys. Supplies were short during the last shot series and these guys got missed.”
“How many are we talking about here?” Karl’s voice was low, almost a whisper.
A sigh. “Two battalions. Figure fifty percent are susceptible, so…about eight hundred men.”
“You got that right. Jiffy says that if we don’t get the vaccine to them in five days, ninety percent of those guys are dead, and the rest will be incap.” He used the nickname for the Joint Iranian Expeditionary Force – East headquarters, abbreviated JIEF-E but usually just called ‘Jiffy.’
Karl stared at the glowing map board, thinking hard. This wouldn’t normally be a problem – the vaccine was readily available in the rear bases in Afghanistan, and airlift assets should be available to fly it to the front. But Top was obviously worried – so something was wrong. Something was missing.
“So fly a C-130 up there and drop some shit off. Too easy.” Holland was either in denial or was being willfully dense.
“Dumbass! You think somebody didn’t think of that already?” Top’s voice boomed, shattering the calm in the TOC. The radio operator in the corner nearly jumped out of his seat, having been almost asleep in his chair. “We’d love to just fly a C-130 in there but the Iranians – again with help from our favorite Russians – have the airspace pretty well locked down with SAMs from Tehran as well as some of the new laser platforms floating in the Caspian. Not to mention all the MANPADS they’ve got down there…So, goddamn it, an air insertion is on the table but it’s a last resort.”
“Convoy.” Karl was still intent on the map display as he spoke the word. “But from where? The road from Herat has been cut.”
“Guess who has available manpower and a stock of the vaccine AND is on a viable route into country? Us, you assholes.” Top walked over and slumped into a folding metal chair. It creaked angrily under his bulk but didn’t break.
“What are you saying, Top?” Holland was sounding almost hysterical. “Can’t we just blow the piss out of those lasers and get our birds in there?”
Karl interjected before Top could say a word. “The Caspian Sea is neutral territory. Our rules of engagement prevent us from even flying over it, let alone engaging anything on it.”
“Man, fuck the ROE! Who thought that up? Hell…”
Top coughed. “Anyway, that’s above our pay grade. Point is, we’re going to have to send a mission.” He looked up, suddenly looking very old and very tired. “I need you two to lead this thing. The order specifies only N-free soldiers and you’re the only SF guys here who haven’t had the treatment. The rest I’ll be sending are a hodgepodge, whatever guys I can spare.” He grinned a dirty old man grin. “Including that new IDF lieutenant.”
“At least there’s some good news.” Holland’s expression didn’t seem to brighten any, though.
“That’s all I’ve got for you now. Get some rest – we’ll be briefing at 0800 and you’ll be leaving as soon as you can get the trucks loaded and rolling.” Karl glanced at his watch. Three and a half hours. Just enough time to get his gear together and maybe hit breakfast. No time for sleep – but he was pretty used to that by now.
She was beautiful, all right – long auburn hair, with just enough of a wave to look natural and yet consciously styled at the same time; slim and a little bit tall, with just enough curves to give a hint of femininity under her digital-patterned uniform. Her eyes were shadowed under the brim of her patrol cap, but if you could see them they’d be chocolate brown, round and glistening – but with a hard stare that belied her pretty-girl looks.
Atara Erez had arrived at FOB Rhino two weeks ago, as part of an Israeli-American officer exchange program. With the IDF fighting side-by-side with Americans on the western front in Syria, the exchange was meant to deepen the already-strong organizational ties between the two longtime allies. She held the equivalent rank of first lieutenant in the US Army, which mostly meant that she tried to stay out of the way and learn before she jumped in and started offering suggestions.
After the first week, she had started to get used to the continual staring and unsubtle leering; for all their eyeballing, though, the soldiers at the FOB were well-mannered enough, and she admired especially the attitudes of the special forces soldiers, who did their best to treat her as just another lieutenant in their conversation, even while their eyes failed miserably.
She had awakened early as was her custom for a jog around the tiny compound, stretching her legs in the crisp spring dawn, enjoying the inrush of dry air that reminded her of her home in the Negev Desert of Israel. She was interrupted during her run, though, by one of the junior soldiers of the post, who awkwardly flagged her down.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but the first sergeant needs to see you as soon as possible. Sorry to interrupt you.”
She obeyed, heading straight for the TOC, still showing a sheen of sweat on her lithe body. There, the first sergeant told her about the situation and the plan to save the battalions on the Caspian Sea.
The plan! She grimaced under her patrol cap as she thought of it. If you could call it a plan – eight people piled into two clunky old vehicles, driving over eight hundred miles through hostile territory to deliver the N-virus counter serum. The most powerful military force in the history of the earth, and this is what they could come up with! Of course, it was gutsy, and there were plenty of seemingly impossible (and equally harebrained) military events in Israel’s history, so she could empathize with the American’s desperate bravado…
She squinted into the rising sun, waiting in the FOB’s tiny parking lot that served as its motor pool, waiting for the others to arrive. Her gear was in a neat pile at her feet, her rifle slung across her chest. In front of her sat the two vehicles assigned for the team’s use – one of them an old uparmored Humvee (from HMMWV, High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle), and the other, one of the slightly newer (but still venerable) M1117 Armored Security Vehicles (ASV). Both looked questionable to Atara, but she didn’t have any choice in the matter – if her orders were to ride those trucks, ride them she would.
Sergeant Sjostad and his partner Holland were the first to arrive, their rucksacks and weapons in hand. The dark circles under their eyes betrayed their lack of sleep but they looked alert, if not entirely enthusiastic. Atara found Sjostad (she had trouble with the name, which she found wasn’t uncommon even with the American soldiers) attractive and slightly exotic – she didn’t know many blonde men, and his carefully maintained flattop haircut seemed like a masculine touch from another, earlier time. His eyes, too, were interesting – piercing indigo and he swung them around with the slow, methodical movement of twin searchlights. She normally didn’t like shorter men, but nobody was perfect.
Holland, on the other hand, she immediately disliked – he seemed like the stereotypical American “cowboy,” with crude language and a craggy, weathered face, always ready with a colorful swear word or a thick spit of chewing tobacco. She was certainly no stranger to harsh language – foul mouths were standard issue with the military since time immemorial – but Holland’s seemed uninspired and vulgar, somehow.
They greeted her and dropped their gear next to hers. “Ready to roll, LT?,” Holland asked, grinning. Atara could see the bulge of a big chaw in his lower lip and she scowled. Holland just shrugged. “Guess so.”
Karl gestured to the vehicles, his face stone-serious, intoning like a surveying general. “Which one do you want, Bob? The go-cart, or the tin can?” His deadpan delivery was perfect and Holland erupted into laughter; Atara even cracked a smile.
“Tin can all the way, baby. I like to sit a little higher off the ground.”
“That’s what I figured.” Karl picked his gear back up. “Let’s get loaded up. The others should be here soon. Ma’am, I’d recommend you ride with Sergeant Holland here. That 1117 is a little safer truck than this little Humvee.”
Atara reached down and grabbed her pack. “I want to ride up front.” She strode off towards the Humvee, leaving the two men looking at each other, smiling.