Beyond Reach
by Michael Priv
  
MISTERIJA, DARFUR         
          The world stopped.
          The explosion ripped a large hole in the Humvee on the driver’s side. Corporal Miller slumped at the wheel—his blood, mixed with tissue fragments, was all around the cockpit now. Captain strained to penetrate the grayness in his mind. Didn’t he just see the woman’s face at the edge of his vision, in the fiery hallow, among the dancing flames and shooting stars, where he couldn’t quite catch it? “I am leaving you,” she told him then. There she was in his mind now, just beyond his reach.
          Captain willed himself to focus, banishing the ghost. He wiped Miller’s and his own blood from his eyes the best he could and blinked a few times. His vision returned—partially, slowly. He tasted blood, lots of it. There was not a sound in the world, except for a constant, shrill whistling in his ears.
          With effort, he turned and stared at the body of Private O’Neil slumped under his M134 gun, mounted in the Humvee turret. O’Neil loved that gun. Love… a funny thing…
          Captain squinted his bloodshot eyes through the shuttered windshield just in time to catch movement straight ahead. Multiple points. Long AK muzzle flushes. He could not immediately locate his M16 and so reached for the handgun, grateful for the reassurance his Glog’s rubber grip offered. He turned around, much easier now, feeling his strength returning—not his hearing just yet—and saw Private Ziga with blood all over his face, groggily climbing out of the destroyed Humvee’s back seat, dragging his assault rifle behind him. Ziga looked at the Captain with a smile on his bloodied face and his lips moved. Captain smiled back, unfazed by his inability to hear any words that come out of Ziga’s mouth. 
          What was left of the Humvee shook. Captain recognized the powerful frame of Corporal Kozlovsky yanking the door on Captain’s side. A bullet nipped Kozlovsky’s Kevlar vest but he ignored it. The door must have been jammed by the explosion. Captain rammed into it with his shoulder from inside. Pain shot through his body, clearing his head a little. The door gave with a screech. He heard that screech! Good news.
          The sounds of the battle returned to Captain with sudden brutality, smothered to a degree by the continuous whistling in his ears and throbbing in his head. Ziga was already laying suppressive fire cover with his M16. Captain heard characteristic pops of M16-mounted grenade launchers shooting smoke grenades to cover their evacuation from the busted Humvee. Kozlovsky half-dragged the Captain away from the vehicle toward the second Humvee, a couple of their men rushing to help. Captain saw one of his men suddenly running face first into a bullet, his face strangely distorted, staggered, tripped and fell. The other soldier jumped over the fallen and kept running toward them, firing his weapon at a sniper in the window somewhere behind them.
          A bullet hit Captain in the back, knocking him off his feet. The Kevlar held. Loud rapport of at least two 50-caliber machine guns on his Humvees, aggravated by the cascade of M16, reverberated painfully through Captain’s skull. His unit opened up in earnest, the RPG’s, more guns joined in, adding to the cacophony, punctuated now also by crisp snapping sounds of their two M82, the large caliber sniper rifles.
          The humanitarian aid trucks behind them just sat in the narrow Misterija street unable to move, boxed in by the Humvees at either end. The rear detachment of his UN Task Force was currently cut off from the action, stuck behind all the food trucks.  
           “Sparrow, come in,” the Captain croaked.
          No answer.
          Captain tried again with the same result. Sparrow was the handle for the UN Envoy Dr. Abul Husanti, riding in an armored UN vehicle somewhere among those food trucks. Captain fished out the X10 GPS unit out of his pocket and switched it on. The UN Envoy car’s homing device registered, although off the road. Dr. Husanti also registered briefly—in motion away from the vehicle, between buildings, must be an alley, then the signal vanished.
          “Eagle, come in,” the Captain tried for the HQ.
          “Eagle here.”
          “Message to General Garcia. Urgent. Convoy ambushed, UN Envoy missing, possibly abducted, request permission to pull back the food convoy and initiate rescue mission to retrieve Husanti. Out.”
          General Garcia was the Chief of the Joined UN Forces in Darfur. Spaniard had a reputation for being a soft-spoken politician, rather than a tough military man. That reputation secured him the sensitive posting in Darfur. Nobody was envious.
          General got on the horn personally, annunciating every word through his thick Spanish accent, “Affirmative on pulling the convoy back. Negative on any attempt to recover the Envoy. We have almost gotten the ear of the Sudanese government. I don’t want to ruin our progress with any civilian casualties. I repeat, return to Base. Out.”
          “Oh, you’ve almost gotten the ear now, have you? That’s nice, Sir. Nobody told the militants here.”
          “Stand down, Captain! Do you understand your orders?”
          “Laud and clear, General. Request a chopper our way, Sir, to help us out.”
          “Okay. Chinook is getting on its way to join you. Out.”     
          Next the Captain called his second in command, Lieutenant Tim Burn, currently marooned with his detachment at the very back of the procession. “Alfa to Bravo, come in, Bravo.”
          “Bravo here.”
          “Report.”
          “A few snipers. Cleared now. We started backing out. Where do you want us?”
          “Yes, correct, back up and get the food trucks out of here, on the double. Leave any abandoned trucks. Cover front and rear. Proceed directly to the alternate position and secure. Wait for us there.”
          “Yes, Sir. Backing up. They sure hate to see all this food getting through, right, Captain?”
          “Wrong. They got Abul. They were not after the food.”
          Lieutenant signed out, cussing.
          Captain looked behind him. The trucks started to stir, spurred into action by Lieutenant’s orders. Competent man, Burn.
          The direct orders were to fall back and leave Abul Husanti to his fate. Did those militants out there give a damn about UN getting on a little better with the government? They couldn’t care less. Dr. Abul Husanti was as good as dead, and soon, probably within thirty minutes. Captain knew what he had to do. 
          “Alfa, listen to my command,” Captain addressed his diminished troops. “This is no longer a humanitarian aid mission. This is now a rescue mission. The UN Envoy was abducted, we are going after him.”
          Captain paused, letting the news soak in. “Rules of engagement change accordingly. They’ll only keep him alive long enough to make a video, which is probably about half an hour longer. This mission is not authorized by Command. Anybody in disagreement can go wherever the hell they want. The rest of us will have a Chinook at our disposal. The Base may help with med evac later. Questions?”
          There were none.
          “Sergeant Mitchel, dig your team in right here to cover us. You need a sharp shooter up high, too. Keep them off our backs for half an hour. Sergeant Aberdare, get your guys assembled behind the Humvees right now. You’re coming with me. Don’t forget the RPG and the second sniper. Move!”    
          “Captain,” Sergeant Aberdare sounded concerned, “do we have any intel on Abul Husanti or the opposition?”
          “None so far, Surge. Get over it.”
          “Yes, Sir.”
          Nine men, Captain included, proceeded down the empty street in single file, keeping distance and covering roof tops, toward the UN vehicle. The armored car was blown off the road and turned over on its side, dead bodies of the driver and the bodyguards strewn around. No sign of Dr. Husanti.
          The alley. Captain took the lead, running to the left between two buildings, M16 on the ready, with the team behind him and Kozlovsky bringing the rear. Gaping doorways and windows, like dark and evil eyes watching them, or hungry mouths waiting to swallow them alive. Or dead. The alley opened into an interior courtyard. Great place for an ambush.
          Captain raised his hand in a tight fist. The team hit the ground. Machine gun fire swept over them, just as the team went down to hug the beaten-down dirt of the alley.
The enemy gun nest was intended to hold them off, so they were on the right track. Two enemy snipers opened up from the windows somewhere behind. The team scuttled for cover, returning fire. A dead body of one of the Janjaweed snipers fell out the window and smashed in the dust behind them.
          “Fire in the hole!” sweat glistening on his gaunt black face, Private Jones fired his RPG at the gun nest. The RPG round went straight and true. The team kept advancing at the dead machine gun nest, covering the now silent windows and roof tops.
          They found a smashed homing device. It must have fallen off Husanti’s wrist, as he was dragged through here by his captors. Somebody must have smashed it with a rifle butt or stepped hard on it.
          The ally opened to a small bazaar square. A small crowd of weary locals were milling around, all men, none of them friendly, eyeing the UN soldiers with a mixture of defiance and hate. The soldiers dispersed, searching the area, ready for an attack from any direction. Having surveyed the crowd, Captain went directly to a rutty looking local in a robe, the only one smiling a toothless smile at him, and took him aside. Captain removed his watch.
          “Take this watch. It’s a good watch, Seiko. Where did they take the hostage?” Captain asked, skipping the preamble and hoping the local understood English. Official language of Sudan being Arabic, that hope was somewhat of a stretch.
          The men’s smile grew wider. He took the watch, stuffed it deep inside his robes and pointed at Captain’s Glog, indicating that he also wanted the gun in exchange for information.
          “Give gun,” he elaborated.
          “No gun.” Captain shook his head, “Take watch. Last chance. What did you see?”
          The man clacked his tongue, shook his head and smiled his toothless smile. “Watch no good. Gun good.”
          “Watch good. Take watch. No gun.”
          The local just shook his head.
           “Kozlovsky!” Captain called out. “Interrogate the informant. Let him keep my watch.”
          “If he is an informant, why do I have to interrogate him?” Kozlovsky asked, glancing around nervously, while quickly grabbing the local—just in case—and twisting his arm behind his back, holding his head in a powerful lock. The local’s uneven breathing immediately acquired an unhealthy laborious whizzing to it.
          “We are supposed to pay informants here, no prisoners or interrogations, you know. He wants to sell, he was just bargaining with me. So he is an informant. He took my watch. I want to know where the Janjaweed took Abul Husanti. Need it a minute ago. Start!”
          “Yes, Sir.”
          Captain looked around, noticing a hundred eyes watching them from the corners of windows, peeking from behind tents and produce crates. Dark eyes everywhere, watching. The search of nearby houses and tents did not yield any information. They were wasting valuable minutes.
          “They stuck him into a red three-ton truck with yellow letters on the canopy,” reported Kozlovsky in a couple of minutes.
          Captain diverted the Chinook, in route to join them, to search for the red three-ton truck. Then, to Kozlovsky, “Thanks, Corporal. How is the informant?”
          “His name is Jaijub. We are buddies now. He was a little tired so he went home. I let’im keep the watch, like you said.”   
          “Thanks, Corporal.”
          As vehicular traffic in Misterija had mostly died out during the civil war, it only took a few minutes to spot a red truck from a helicopter. Chinook arrived quickly, shrouded in a cloud of dust and chicken feathers, amid a cacophony of locals screaming, chickens and livestock at the bazaar raising hell. The team loaded up quickly.
          Jaijub, Kozlovsky’s new buddy, neglected to mention at least twenty Janjaweed fighters on that truck and in two pick-up trucks escorting the red three-ton.
          Janjaweed militia, a lose organization of thugs, was nurtured to maturity by the Sudanese government to, in a word, exterminate the non-Arabic civilian population of Sudan. The non-Arabic population objected to being exterminated by organizing their own militia, which the Sudanese Government referred to as the “rebels”. Thus, the Civil War. At the moment, Janjaweed were among the toughest, best armed and most battle-hardened thugs in Africa.
          The main objective now was extracting Abul Husanti from the red truck alive. That ruled out a simple frontal attack, characterized by lots of indiscriminate shooting. When boarding the chopper, Captain caught Sergeant Aberdare’s accusing glance in his direction.
          “What again, Surge? Still worried about the intel?” Captain asked.
          “Intel is alright, Sir, but we have no mission orders. This is not an authorized mission. I will have to file a formal report.”
          “Hey, Surge, why are you New Englanders always whining?” Corporal Blanch chimed in on the link. “Hey, guys, you know how we can tell in Texas when a plane full of New Englanders arrives? The whining doesn’t stop after they shut off the engines! Ha-ha-ha! They just don’t stop…”
          “Comm system’s for operational traffic only!” barked Aberdare. The radio went dead. The fact that Surge allowed Blanch to complete his joke at his, Aberdare’s, own expense before re-establishing his authority had not escaped Captain’s and the rest of the team’s attention. The joke offered an outlet. Men smirked in the relative safety of the armored helicopter. That relative safety was about to end.
          Captain squeezed through to the front to coordinate with the pilots.
“Lower the hoist-hook to thirty feet or so. Dive and pass right over the truck, guns muzzled. Rip off the canopy and hover. We handle any immediate danger to Husanti. Then you open up with you 50-cal. All in that sequence. Clear?” Captain laid out the operation from the top of his lungs, outshouting the considerable decibels. His nose started bleeding again. “Snag that canopy off on the first run. The first run! Or Abul’s dead!”
          “You got it, Cap’n!” nodded the pilot.
          “Surge, get your snipe ready for immediate action, as the canopy comes off. Get the team hooked up. It’ll be fast, all on the first pass! I want Kozlovsky and Washington with me on that truck,” Captain ordered. Surge gave orders, put his men in place, got them hooked up to the repelling ropes and the sniper—unruffled as usual—fully ready with his rifle.
          As the canopy came off the truck, they saw some half a dozen armed militants and a small bloodied figure of Abul Husanti prostrate on the truck floor. One of the Janjaweed was holding a handgun to Husanti’s head—an encouraging indication that Abul was possibly still alive—and shouting something up to the Americans, while others were firing their AK’s at the helicopter. The pick-up tracks joined in with machine gun fire. An RPG round whooshed wide, trailing smoke. The chopper whirled to nearly avoid the second RPG round.
          The sniper opened up instantaneously with relentless accuracy, starting with the militant holding a gun to Husanti’s head. The rest of the team descended from the chopper in a hail of bullets, shooting up a storm, taking out fighters on the pick-up trucks one by one. The chopper’s 50-caliber opened up above them. Captain hit the ground hard and ran directly toward the red truck, shooting, boarded the truck, joined by Kozlovsky and Washington, and finishing off any remaining opposition. They dug Abul Husanti alive but unconscious from under the pile of dead Janjaweed.
          The rest of the team was already mopping up the scene of death and destruction around them with both pick-up trucks burning and dead bodies of the enemies strewn about.
          “Surge, get the chopper down, secure the area and load up, we are leaving,” Captain ordered tiredly.
          “Bravo, come in,” he called Lieutenant Tim Burn in charge of the rear detachment.
          “Bravo here.”
          “How are you holding up, Tim? Casualties?”
          “Ran into some trouble. Lost two trucks. Three wounded. But we are almost at the alternate location with no more opposition. How is the Iranian?”
          “We got’im. Hole up in there, Burk. Out.
          “Mitch! Come in, Mitch. Sergeant Mitchell!”
          “Mitch here, Sir! Good news on Husanti.”
          “Yeah. What’s your 20?”
          “We are still here, hankered down in one of the houses. Ran out of ammo. Using the Janjaweed’s AK’s now, but anyways, things are quieted down. We are all banged up but breathing. Tyron here even broke a nail, he’s been complaining a lot about that.”
          “All banged up? Confirm you need med evac for the entire team.”
          “Ye’sir!”
          “Okay. Coming up. Thanks, Mitch, good work. Hang in there, you guys.”
          “Surge!” Captain called out to Aberdare. “Casualties report.”
          “Two wounded. And Blanch bought it. A head shot at descent.”
          Blanch…
          “Thank you, Surge, good work.”
          Sergeant Aberdare slapped Captain on the shoulder, smiling in his salt-and-pepper mustache, shaking his head and wiping sweat off his brow. “Good job, Sir!”          
           Removing the blue UN helmet from his throbbing head, Captain slumped against a bullet-ridden parapet wall next to his assault rifle and closed his eyes to give them a rest, listening to the sudden deafening silence in his head.
          The woman’s face formed at the very edge of his vision. “I am leaving you,” she told him then. There she was in his mind again now, in the fiery hallo, among the dancing flames and shooting stars.
          Just outside his reach.
                                                                                                                                                                                   © 2014 Michael Priv. All Rights. Reserved.