© Rupert de Cesaris 2013
It was, of all things, a meteorite that saved him. The sudden appearance of its white hot disintegration against an obsidian night sky littered with stars and the occasional cloud drew his attention to the exact place it needed to be. He knew they were there, of course, waiting like stone statues lost in the moonless shadows; the privilege of the defending force. He, the aggressor, had to press on inch by tortuous inch, relentlessly until he found and eliminated the target.
Or was killed himself.
For once, he wasn’t alone on this mission and it was his buddy who gesticulated that he would take care of business on this occasion. The man was only too happy to let him – although he could kill a man in any number of ways the very act of doing so always haunted for months afterwards. Having spotted the enemy, he never took his eyes from him just in case his buddy fouled up somehow – not that that was likely but shit happens on ops, regardless of the meticulous planning and execution. In The Trade, it is known as Murphy’s Law and Mr Murphy is blessed with a wicked sense of humour, frequently popping up at the most inconvenient times.
It happened so quickly. One second the sentry was standing there silently peering into the black night, the next his head hit the soft earth with a dull wet thud. Astonishingly, his body took two steps forward before it collapsed into the arms of its nemesis who offered up a prayer for the dead man’s soul as he gently laid the headless body on the ground. The Gurkha quickly wiped his razor sharp kukris clean and slid it noiselessly back into its protective scabbard; it would almost certainly be needed again that night.
The two intruders communicated silently using well rehearsed hand gestures that preserved the silence critical to their survival for they were deep in enemy territory and although the opposition was no match for them professionally, they were plenty in number and armed to the teeth with a range of automatic weapons. When contact was eventually made, there would be the inevitable firefest as the enemy was given to blazing away in all directions in the hope of hitting something.
But for the time being at least all was quiet and ordered. The two men pressed on until they encountered the perimeter fence of the compound. This comprised six horizontal strands of wire, each about seven inches apart. The top strand protruded some three inches or so out from the vertical on their side and was clearly electrified to stop wild animals crashing through at their whim. The team leader pulled a small device from his webbing and passed it over each of the remaining five strands in turn.
Nothing – so apart from the top strand the fence wasn’t electrified with high voltage. Good. He made an adjustment and did the same. The third wire up registered a low current. Damn! A trembler wire. He indicated this to the Gurkha and both men slithered silently in opposite directions until they located the vertical supporting posts. A single glance confirmed his worst expectations: the trembler wire passed through oversized plastic grommets and was thus under tension, to cut it would immediately trip the alarm system as the sprung tensioners at either end snapped back triggering attached microswitches.
More delay, but their rigorous training schedule had prepared them to suppress any impatience that might make hands tremble with adrenaline overload, or logic to be displaced by emotion. It was simply another hurdle to overcome. Accordingly, each man fitted a small collar over the offending wire and tightened up a pair of brass screws to hold it in place against the post. It wouldn’t matter if there was a small amount of give as the sensitivity of the alarm allowed for some movement caused by wind or wild creatures. Each screw penetrated the wire’s protective plastic insulation and made contact with the core itself. The man took a roll of wire with a crocodile clip on the end and attached it to the brass screws and then proceeded to move lugubriously along the fence towards his companion, unreeling the roll of bridging wire as he went which he fixed to the fifth strand using cable ties. It was then a case of cutting the bridge wire, crimping a croc clip on the end and attaching to the brass screws – having first confirmed that the circuit was complete.
They were now ready to infiltrate the compound itself.
Having spent almost a week in situ observing the compound at a safe distance under ‘hard routine’ conditions, the Team knew their foe’s routine off pat. They also had a fair idea where the hostages were being held. It had quickly become clear they weren’t facing a highly disciplined or particularly competent enemy force but money has a way of focussing the mind of even the dumbest of men although the large quantities of alcohol being consumed might negate this. Guard patrols appeared to be lax by anyone’s standards, with some ‘askaris’ falling asleep on the job – once their head honcho had completed his usual nightly patrol. Clearly, he appeared to prefer the comfort of his bed over his conscience as his routine was more reliable than a Moscow underground train. But it only takes one shot to alert the entire defending force, however drunk or soporific the trigger finger might be.
Only a complete fool underestimates the enemy. The perimeter fence had already revealed some degree of intelligent thinking from somewhere within the compound and that same mind might just decide to randomise the night patrols, or conduct a sudden spot check. But if they held true to form, the leader knew he had around half an hour easy for their infil – and that would be more than enough. He replaced the roll of wire and crimpers in his webbing but retained the voltage sensor device which he now put to its other use.
The Silent Communicator, or ‘Silcom’, was the brainchild of a Special Forces signaller who had recognised the value of rapid silent comms in a tactical obs or infil environment. It looked just like a pocket calculator; the keypad comprised numbers rather than letters. The fundamental idea was almost childishly simple: one number could represent a word or a brief sentence. The operator would enter the required digit and press send whereupon all the other similar devices within its limited operating range would register that digit and its sender whose unique call sign formed the first digits separated from the message ‘body’ by a colon.
The only flaw in this system was knowing what number represented which word or phrase. Some were easy, for example ‘1’ was ‘Roger’, ‘2’ was ‘Over’, ‘3’ was ‘Out’, ‘4’ was ‘Wait[ing] out’ and so on, and these never changed and so were easy to learn and remember. It was the ops-specific numbers that proved to be the Achilles heel as these needed to identified during the planning stage to cover all eventualities and then, crucially, learnt by rote for use in theatre requiring hours of practice usually accompanied by much cursing and swearing among the ‘Blades’ aimed directly at the ‘Scalies’.
But that tended to be forgotten in the field as the things had proved invaluable time and time again. They were also secure: if the enemy did manage to capture one they would think it was just an ordinary calculator. In the unlikely event they realised it was a comms device, it would be impossible to discover the content of any given message as it comprised solely of a few seemingly random numbers. Another bonus was transmission time was measured in milliseconds, making detection virtually impossible. The devices made no sound of any description; the only possible ‘tell’ was the muted green backlit display but even this was hard to spot from more than a few metres away.
The team leader, Alpha 1, tapped out his series of messages: sentries neutralised (6); perimeter fence neutralised (8); top wire electrified (9); third wire up trembler (13); other sentries (11) seen, nil (11:0); other units report sitrep (5). Team 2, which was in a similar position to 1 but much closer to the buildings where the hostages were thought to be, transmitted 2:1;6;11:0;4 – Team 2, Roger; sentry neutralised, none other seen, waiting out. They now knew exactly how to deal with the perimeter fence and once the word was given would emulate the actions of the pathfinder team.
The main assault force was divided into Teams 3 and 4. T3 was gathered a safe distance behind Team 1, T4 was likewise backing up T2. Both simply transmitted in turn 3/4:1;7;4 – 3/4 roger, ready, waiting out.
Alpha 1 cut the first of the five strands of wire. He left the trembler until last just in case any of the other three were rigged and consequently set klaxons shattering the night’s comfortable silence. But each tiny ‘snip’ was the only sound to be heard and so the door into the compound was breached.
T2 began breaching their section of the fence, T3 and T4 moved up into position.
The tactical plan called for T2 to attack first as a primary diversion, T4 would hold off until the assault was detected to reduce the chances of being ‘bounced’ themselves as they were that much nearer the target buildings and their primary task was to rescue the hostages rather than take on the defending force – that was down to T1. Once their ‘door’ had been opened, they could burst in at any time.
By this time, T2 had joined T1 so hand signals were sufficient to confirm their readiness. Alpha 1 scanned the compound with his nightscope one last time but nothing showed. It was time to move!
But the only immediate movement was by Alpha 1 as he crawled into the compound - alone. Throughout the surveillance phase of the operation his sixth sense had been nagging him more and more that all was not as it seemed. The enemy might not be all that sophisticated - by his standards - but that didn’t mean they were stupid either. Two buildings dominated the compound, one appeared to be troop accommodation, the other reserved for the hostages judging by the small barred windows. All week enemy forces had trooped in and out of their building – to the mess tent and other amenities, whereas the other building had appeared more or less deserted. Unless, of course, one counted the agonised screams that occasionally emanated from within its breeze block walls.
Alpha 1 stealthily made his way to the two buildings; if their mission was to succeed he had to know if his instincts were on the button or catastrophically off target. The stakes were ludicrously high: they could not fuck up at any price! A sudden snort and moan made him freeze in his tracks as he tried to work out what the hell had just happened. It had sounded decidedly human and so very slowly and deliberately, he lifted his weapon up to his eye level and squinted into the darkness, now turned a lurid psychedelic shade of green.
The sentry died abruptly in his sleep, oblivious to his doom. Alpha 1 crept on, his nerves on tenterhooks in case any more sentries had been posted. The last one had reeked of the stale booze that had been his undoing – if only the others would be in the same state this should be a breeze. He reached the first building undetected and cautiously peered in through the open window aperture, then did the same at the second building. Satisfied, he retreated into cover and relayed the intel to the assault teams:
1:6;11:0;14 Alpha 1: sentries neutralised, no others detected; Plan A
2:1:14;7 T2 Roger, Plan A; ready
With surprising speed and agility T2 squirmed their way one by one under the electric fence and then fanned out into an all round defence position as the rest of the team breached the compound. If the shit hit the fan before all were through, then to hell with the electric fence – it would be cut, but until that happened it would stay exactly as it was – just in case it was rigged with a voltage surge indicator. Once inside, they ‘leapfrogged’ toward their primary target, the troop accommodation block. Alpha 1 had taken up a position that gave him an excellent killing zone should the enemy come surging out before the main force was in position, but the only noise thus far was a multitude of snores.
It couldn’t last. Nature had taken its course and one of the drunken pirates stumbled outside to take a piss behind the building. The wretched man had a torch and as it snapped on he was astonished to find himself face to face with the grim blacked up features of a commando. Death came quickly, but not before he had been able to utter a stifled shout of alarm and from inside the sounds of stirring could be heard.
The assault time sprang into action. Grenades were promptly hurled into the renegades’ sleeping block to explode within seconds, reducing those inside to a mushy gore of harmless broken corpses. Alpha 1 had been right to be cautious because the pirate leader had interspersed some of his men among the hostages and their purpose was almost certainly to kill them in the event of a raid. Stun grenades were therefore deployed into the hostages’ area and the second they exploded T3 burst in and rapidly dispatched the dazed captors with lethal double taps.
It was over as quickly as it had begun. All but a handful of the Somali pirates lay dead in bloody heaps of useless humanity. They had been wreaking havoc along the East Coast of Africa for months, initially by capturing large container vessels and oil tankers for ransom which was usually paid with little fuss and even less public knowledge. But more recently the temptation of human leverage had proved irresistible, partly because rich families would pay up but it was also more pragmatic: it was a hell of a sight easier to hide a few people than a ruddy great oil tanker – and people could be moved around easily if necessary.
Their bodies could also vanish without trace if they proved to be worthless.
This particular mission had come about following the successful pirating of the luxury yacht God’s Truth (Dia Vero – Esperanto) the property of Harvey Ruddock, the news media mogul. Unfortunately for the world at large, he wasn’t on it but his daughter was along with the son of an influential US Senator. The heist was no happy coincidence for the pirates; their elusive leader (Kiongozi – Swahili) had for some time been establishing a network of spies placed carefully across the globe and thus knew where the best pickings were likely to be at any given time.
As soon as the news broke, so all hell did with anxious families demanding action. The Prime Minister convened a hasty meeting in Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (COBRA) much to the astonishment of the remaining Cabinet, Combined Intelligence Committee (CIC) and Joint Chiefs who habitually attended: this event hardly represented a direct threat to the nation. But Ruddock had the PM firmly lodged in his talons and was not about to abandon his only child. Neither was Senator Clinton McKay who had invested a small fortune in his heir apparent.
Inertia and inaction were not options.
“We can’t do this!”
“We have no choice.”
“You’re right – we don’t! We’ll be establishing an impossible precedent: every British citizen held to ransom will demand a similar response!”
“Out of the question!”
“Exactly! So why make an exception for these two?”
“They’re important people, that’s why!” The PM spat.
“No they’re not – they’re little more than spoilt brats of very wealthy parents who can easily afford to bail their kids out. Why should we intervene?”
“Because I said we would, that’s why!”
“So you’ve already committed us – before this meeting? So this is nothing more than a rubber stamp exercise?”
“This is a delicate diplomatic matter-”
“So let the Yanks do the honours. . .”
It was eventually agreed to schedule a second ‘feasibility’ meeting within days – only this time it would be attended by representatives of 22 Special Air Service Regiment who would act as ‘advisors’. It did not go well.
The PM was most notable for his absence, clearly determined to distance himself from such wanton favouritism. Number 10 was represented, however, but by a lowly minion already marked as the perfect scapegoat should it all go tits up. Senator McKay, on the other hand, did attend after much bullying over the hotline.
So, too, did a grim faced individual who appeared to be slightly bemused by the antics unfolding around him. With the exception of the other SAS rep there, no-one present had any inkling that if this mission went ahead it would be the tough but charismatic nameless man leading it.
“I want Delta in on this!” McKay demanded, determined that the US should share the kudos. Somalia was still a sensitive issue in the lamentable wake of the Battle of Mogadishu that went so disastrously wrong some two decades previously. Direct action was high risk, even now, but being part of a British op would be less contentious: if the shit hit the fan, they would carry the can.
“Mr Smith?” His colleague prompted a response.
“Delta could certainly tag along, Senator, but I might remind you what happened the last time they staged a hostage rescue attempt?” McKay visibly paled but remained resolutely silent. It was yet another fuck-up Uncle Sam was still smarting from.
“I think it best if we keep this entirely in-house, gentlemen.” ‘Mr Smith’ had worked with Delta before and had refused to do so ever since but now was not the time to divulge his personal feelings. McKay was only too happy to concede defeat – the thought of his kid being blown to hell and gone like Linda Norgove had been by a careless operator was enough to usurp whatever feelings of loyalty he possessed for dear old Unc in an anxious heartbeat.
“Do we have any hard intel?” Smith inquired laconically.
“We know their location.”
“Oh? That’s quick!”
“Not really, son,” McKay patronised, “Mah boy has been chipped. Course, he don’t know it – a little precaution I took when he had his appendix whipped out a coupla year back. How else am I to keep tabs on him?”
“How indeed?” This was not good. It would only be a matter of time before the same thought might occur to the boy’s captors. They’d dig the chip out with a blunt rusty knife and move them deeper in country. “And Spybird?”
“Been and gone, second pass due in coupla hours, son.” Smith wondered just how much influence McKay had – diverting spy satellites was not a privilege accorded to your average citizen.
“And . . .?”
And here they were, deep in country. Sat intel had confirmed the presence of both key hostages – a term that Alpha One, the team leader, deplored precisely because other hostages had also been identified at the camp: in his view ‘pax’ were ‘pax’ and all worthy of rescue. Needless to say, little interest was expressed in the latter although they did provide a convenient blanket excuse that made the mission less blatantly partisan should ‘transparent’ accountability rear its ugly mug. Nevertheless, it was made absolutely clear what the mission priority was and if that meant leaving lesser mortals behind, so be it. The senator and Number 10 had been very clear on that!
What no-one knew, including A1 himself, was that he had been chosen precisely because the Boss knew he would never leave anyone behind, regardless of orders from distant politicos who had never faced a day’s danger in their cosseted lives. There was more than one way to skin a cat, and he knew them all.
Photos of the principal hostages were passed round, followed by the collaterals. A1 scrutinised the girl first: she was a looker, no doubt, but was that a gleam of defiance staring back at him from the studio portrait? He needed to form some idea of the people he was dealing with so he had a fair idea how they would behave under pressure – key to the success, or failure, of the mission. She was no doubt used to getting her own way, entirely egocentric and no doubt arrogant with it: the sort that would insist on abandoning others to save her own delicate pampered skin.
The male was even more worrisome. A1 took an instant dislike to the pretty boy smiling with haughty disdain at the camera with his coiffured pony tail resting casually on one narrow shoulder. The smug youth screamed pure Ivy League and therefore all the shit that went with extreme wealth and indulgent privilege: he would doubtless be a complete disaster when the shit hit the fan and be a serious liability. If anyone was going to be left behind, it would be he.
The other hostages comprised a broad spectrum of unfortunates who had had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time: the retired couple sailing around the world in the only asset they now possessed; the honeymoon couple cruelly snatched in flagrante from their romantic lovenest in Malindi; the crew of a small cargo ship hijacked on the high seas; and the three expats working for a small construction company. These were the ones who deserved rescue as it was their only hope of salvation.
The mission had been put together with a rapidity that would have left most military outfits gasping in outright panic convinced that all manner of detail had been overlooked - which would undoubtedly have been the case. But these were the best of the best and knew their business down to the finest detail. Planning was less by committee but by individual expertise in a specific area such that a complex mission could be planned at very short notice and driven by mutual respect and trust.
The absolute priority was to get on the ground as soon as possible – before the hostages were moved on. They could then lie-up and observe the pirate compound at their relative leisure and plan their attack. You can have all the fancy spy technology you like, but nothing beats intel gathered in real time by those needing it, rather than a string of remote operatives adding their own interpretations and analyses as it passed up then back down the chain of command. The down side was the increased the risk of being found, but that’s why they were paid the big bucks – to take such risks. At least the mission stood the best chance of success and at the end of the day, that’s all that really mattered - otherwise why bother to be there at all?
The raiding party swept with lethal efficiency through the compound checking for any members of the opposition who might have retreated into some dark corner or crevice somewhere only to pop up and put a bullet in their backs: these were pirates after all. They comprised a disparate bunch of locals and mercenaries with a common purpose that bound them together: an overbearing love for money combined with a complete disregard for human welfare. The locals were grievously ill-disciplined and more of a liability – leadership came from the mercenaries but most of these were drop-outs and wannabes living the dream. They did not represent a significant threat but idiots with guns and grenades can still do a shit load of damage and complacency is always the mother of all fuck-ups.
“You took your time, didn’t you?” The girl suggested, quite unable to hear her own voice thanks to the stun grenades that had torn her from a fitful sleep just moments earlier. She cast a quick look at the lifeless forms that had been her captors, counting all three. Good, they were safe at last. “No doubt Daddy dearest sent you?”
A1 nodded grimly – it was exactly as he had suspected.
“Well there are others here too – and I’m not leaving without them!” She attempted to flick her long auburn hair in a well practised display of magnificent defiance but it was as filthy as the rest of her and simply swung awkwardly in a matted mess that resembled the threadbare palliasse she had been forced to sleep on for the last two weeks. (colour eyes) ferocious Her rescuer found himself with a hard stare.
Acutely aware of her temporary deafness he smiled and gave her the thumbs up. “Where are they?” He mouthed slowly, earning him a distinct look of exasperation.
“In there,” she indicated a stout wooden door, “they kept me and the Gutless Wonder separate as much as possible – we were their golden cash cow, no doubt. There are no bad guys in there, by the way, so no more stun grenades? There’s a retired couple . . .” she trailed off and crawled to the door. “Hi guys, it’s me, Heidi, it’s ok, the good guys have come to take us all home! Get back from the door, all of you!”
“What the fuck is going on?” A distinctly American voice demanded feebly from somewhere in the shadows. “I know who you guys are and as an American citizen I demand you get me outta here – right now!”
A1 ignored the plaintive wheedling and set about blowing the hinges off the door securing the bulk of the hostages. The 12 bore boomed twice in rapid succession followed by a terrified scream of outrage. The door crashed onto the ground with a reverberating crash.
“What the fuck are you doing? Forget them! It’s me you’ve come to rescue - I’m here, you’ve found me, so let’s fucking go! They’re not important enough to waste time on!”
Heidi scuttled into the stuffy room and immediately began consoling the other hostages with words of comfort she couldn’t hear but they at least could, thanks to the solid wooden shield that now lay haphazardly where it had fallen. They all hugged and embraced not knowing what else to do other than try and calm their tortured nerves and celebrate the dramatic arrival of their liberators.
The wheedling from the dark recesses had not diminished but gained in both volume and petulance. A1 strode over to the whingeing cringer and dragged him to his feet by his bedraggled pony tail. Without wasting time or words, he propelled the protesting youth outside and administered a swift rabbit punch to his midriff.
“Listen up, you little shit: one more word from you and I leave you behind. Understand?” The gasping boy nodded and tears sprung from his terrified eyes; whoever these guys were, they clearly weren’t Americans. Suddenly, he felt a lot less sure of himself and immediately took refuge in a glowering sulk that was to stubbornly persist until he stepped off his father’s private jet at Dulles airport, DC.
All the known hostages were accounted for and, apart from the temporary effects of the stun grenades, appeared to be in reasonable health. At least they were all still alive. The team immediately began scouring every square inch for any intel on the pirate gang but time was rapidly running out: the Chinook CH47s that would extract them all could be heard thumping the night skies in the distance and as they got nearer, the ground began to tremble with the incredible force of their downdraughts.
Extraction was uncomplicated: all 15 of the hostages were bundled unceremoniously onto the first chopper plus a small cohort of his men to escort them, the remainder to exfil on the second chopper once they had finished sweeping the area. Naturally, the few prisoners they had would be on the second whirlybird along with anything else they found. Satisfied they had achieved all they could, A1 was the last to emplane and as the Chinny thrashed its way skywards, he never looked back.
Within the hour he was on the ground at the Forward Operating Base in neighbouring Kenya. The civilians had been quickly ushered into Isolation: secure accommodation where they were fed and watered before the counselling sessions began for those in need there and then. Dawn was some hours away, but everyone was by now wide awake and huddled in groups to discuss their extraordinary adventure and try and come back down to earth.
The rescue team went about their usual post-op business: checking equipment, treating any wounds or injuries and preparing for the inevitable debrief. Alpha 1 had already retired to his private quarters and was busy writing up his report whilst events were still fresh in his mind. He knew he had taken one hell of a gamble that night but it had paid off. He only hoped that the higher echelons would see it that way as well.
If they didn’t, his career was well and truly down the shitter.