I stood at the window, gazing into the darkness, waiting for dawn. There was a crawling sensation in my stomach, a feeling I always got at times like this, a combination of excitement and apprehension. I’d been involved in hostage extractions before; we all had. We’d go in at night, a full platoon, well camo’d, a plan of the target area displayed on head-ups in the visors. We’d work quietly. If we encountered trouble we were equipped for it: multirifles fitted with ballistic and stun barrels, night sights, grenade launchers, flashbangs. Not this time. This mission was different. This one was off the scale.
I glanced behind me. A shaft of yellow light slanted from the slightly open door to the room where the aircrew were making their final preparations, or sleeping, I wasn’t sure which. Gerry and Sef were sitting on a bench, Gerry supporting the camera on its tripod, Sef with his sound recording equipment next to him. They were wide awake. No one said anything.
I turned back to the window. There’d been a subtle change. Shapes were beginning to emerge from the blackness. Our transport materialized in shades of grey, looking far too large on that small airfield. The sun rose further, and the RotoFan’s newly painted fuselage glowed first peach, then pink, then—within minutes—brilliant white. The words “CBC Outside Broadcast Unit” stood out in large black letters, hard as the long shadow that it cast across the apron. The hemmed-in feeling that came with darkness had gone; the landscape extended in every direction.
I heard movement and turned as the three aircrew emerged from their room. The pilot came over.
“Captain Forbes? We’re all set.”
I nodded. Sef and Gerry were already on their feet. We followed the crew out and climbed on board. The twin seats were arranged in well-spaced rows facing forward, civilian style. I chose a window where I could see the port engine pod without it obscuring my view. Sef and Gerry each took a window on the other side of the aisle. The crew chief handed me a lightweight wireless headset. He ignored the others.
One engine started, then the other, running up into a double whine and sending a wave of red dust to the limits of the airfield. The craft lifted, I saw the pod turning, and we began to accelerate. Ten minutes later we were cruising low over the sun-baked plateau that marks the western border of Chingala. We left it behind us and crossed into Ubindi. The terrain below was sparsely covered with dry grass, scrub, and a very few spindly trees. This was a dry and desolate landscape, devoid of habitation, devoid of wildlife. No villagers paused to look up at us; no herds of game stiffened then scattered with the rapidly approaching sound.
I looked to my right. Gerry was flicking the pages of an in-flight magazine he must have found in a seat pocket. Sef had dozed off. Looking at those two gave me a warm sense of fellowship. I’d chosen a good team—but then, I’d had plenty of choice. The SAF was so oversubscribed it could afford to be selective about who it signed up. One way and another we’d all earned our place.
Gerry Lucknow was from a farming family somewhere out in the mid-West. He came to the Force with an outstanding record in the regular U.S. Army. He had the sort of big, open countenance that invites friendship and we’d hit it off from the moment I joined the unit. Gerry was a big guy, six foot four and built to match. I once saw a squad loading up a transport, two to each crate of ammo, and then Gerry came out on his own, handling one like it was a box of cereal. He was pretty quiet for a man so obviously capable of creating mayhem, but if things did go pear-shaped there wasn’t anyone I’d sooner have at my back.
Sefu Mwangi was from East Africa, and his face looked like it had been chiselled out of anthracite. Sef was picked from hundreds of foreign applicants. He was fluent in several Bantu languages, on top of which he was an engineering graduate and a first-class soldier. He might not have Gerry’s strength but his endurance was unbelievable. After two goes at the assault course and a tab in between, the rest of us could hardly stand up. Sef would look like he could do it all over again. I was glad to have him with me on this trip; his language ability could be a big plus in this part of Africa.
Like Sef, I was one of the few non-U.S. nationals who’d made it into the Force. For me, it was a lucky break. Just a year ago I was with the 22 SAS. Then my Colonel assigned me to a joint op with the SAF. It was tough, very tough. I must have done okay because they asked me if I’d like to transfer permanently, at the rank of Captain.
I returned my gaze to the window. When the time came, Sef and Gerry would do what was necessary; meanwhile they’d switched off. That’s what I ought to do, but I couldn’t.
There’s just one way to stay alive on a mission like this: you do your homework. You study every scrap of intelligence you can get. You memorize the layout, you learn about the opposition. You agree your primary strategy, discuss every possible scenario, and decide on alternative courses of action: if this, then that, if that, then this. Some of the time, maybe even most of the time, you’ll get it right. Once in a while your luck runs out and something totally unexpected crops up. It can happen in an instant and get you killed, so you do your level best to see it doesn’t.
That’s what I didn’t like about this operation. Here we were, going out to the camp of a secretive, highly mobile, rebel army. Until a few days ago we didn’t even know their location. We still knew nothing of the layout and all we knew about the people was what they were capable of, and that was far from pleasant. We’d never met their leader—the man we were supposed to take out—but we’d seen some footage of him and a still of the hostage who needed to be rescued, and that was about it. It would be up to us, and me in particular, to respond to events as they unfolded.
There was an hour and twenty minutes ahead of us be-fore we touched down. I decided to spend the time going over everything I knew—yet again.
Where to start?
“You sent for me, Colonel?”
“Come in Jim, have a seat.”
He was my CO, so he could have called me Forbes or Captain Forbes but he called me Jim. There was nothing friendly about it. It was probably in a manual somewhere.
I sat down and watched him as his fingers moved and tapped the touch-screen that covered ninety percent of his desktop. Colonel Harken was in his forties, lean and fit. So far as I knew he never went out on missions; his battleground was Washington. He was probably the least popular person on the base, except perhaps for the Drill Sergeant, Bill Wicks; he didn’t have many friends, either.
Harken gave the screen a final tap, switched it off, and looked up. His grey eyes were keen and penetrating, accentuated somehow by the short military stubble of his haircut.
“How many operations have you been on in the last year, Jim?”
“All highly successful. No one else in the world could have brought those off—right? Even your old outfit.”
I bristled a bit. I still felt a certain loyalty to The Regiment.
“Those guys are pretty good, Colonel.”
“Oh, they’re good, but they’re chronically under-resourced. You heard about the latest round of defence budget cuts over there, I suppose?”
“Nothing new about that. It was one of the reasons I stayed on with the SAF. I was never too thrilled about going into battle with a wooden rifle.”
“No regrets, Jim? About joining us?”
“It has its moments.”
His lips quirked, very briefly.
“On the other hand, three assignments in one year—it’s not exactly a heavy workload, is it?”
What’s he driving at?
“We have to be operationally ready at all times, sir. That involves a lot of training and exercises. You know that more than anyone.”
He leaned forward. “Yes, I do, Jim, but there are people out there who don’t.” He placed a hand flat on the desk screen. “What the bean counters in Washington see is a group of people who cost a lot to train, cost a lot to keep and equip, and don’t do a hell of a lot for it.”
I felt a slight flush of anger. None of us is idle and I resented the dig. My voice was dead level.
“We try to give good value, Colonel.”
He looked at me sharply, trying to see whether the sarcasm was intentional, then evidently chose to ignore it.
“One of the problems,” he continued, “is that nearly all these assignments are covert. By their very nature we can’t crow about them. That’s why, once in a while, it’s good for us to take on something with a higher profile, something politically important, something,” he stabbed a finger on the blank screen, “we can point to.”
Here it comes.
“Jebediah Ngozi. Heard of him?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“He’s President of the People’s Republic of Ubindi.”
Ubindi, Ubindi… It was around the time I went to
university—so that would make it 2035 or thereabouts. The UN had finally intervened in the big central African conflict and the settlement after the ceasefire involved some redrawing of borders. That created new states. Ubindi was one of them.
“Ngozi has a daughter, Suzanne.” He opened a desk drawer, withdrew a print-out, and passed it across the desk.
I picked it up. I saw a woman in her mid- to late twenties. It was a handsome face. Skin the colour of dark honey shone on the high cheekbones, and the almond-shaped eyes seemed unusually pale. Her straight, dark hair hung to her shoulders. I assumed Ngozi was African; this face made me wonder who the mother was.
Harken pointed. “This young lady was snatched by rebel forces during a trip to the north of the country. The rebel leader’s a man who calls himself General Ben Obadiah. Word is, he’s keeping her as his personal sex slave.”
“So Ngozi wants her back.”
“Yes. He’s a family man. He loves his daughter. It’s driving him mad.”
I held out the picture but he waved it away. “You can hang onto that.”
I folded it and put it into a shirt pocket. “Why should we get involved?”
“Ngozi is a friend of the West and he’s a vigorous opponent of the spread of Islamist fundamentalism in Africa. The U.S. government wants to help out. Problem is, it’s still a sensitive region; no outsiders can have a military presence there, least of all a superpower. I’ve been asked if the SAF could do something quietly. I said yes. It’s a good chance for us to demonstrate our usefulness to people in the right quarters.”
“Okay,” I said. “What’s the strength of the opposition?”
“Obadiah calls it a liberation army. In reality it’s an ill-disciplined, ragtag militia. They terrorise the local inhabitants into giving up food, possessions, even their children, to the cause. He coordinates the whole thing but he’s smart enough not to keep all his followers in one place. We think the group with him numbers about a hundred.”
“And we know where to find them?”
“You’ll have to establish that when you’re out there, but we have a contact.”
“All right. What size force are we taking?”
Harken smiled thinly.
“I said quietly, Jim—we’re not sending in an army. Choose two men. I’ll brief the three of you tomorrow at 0800.”
“Yes, you’re going in as journalists.”
As I walked back to my quarters my thoughts were inter-rupted by a lot of shouting coming from the assault course. It was the familiar sound of Bill Wicks putting a group of new recruits through their paces. I knew exactly what that felt like. When I transferred from the SAS I had to go through the induction process myself. So far as they were concerned I hadn’t been fully trained. It pissed me off at first. Then I thought, what the hell? Typical army bureaucracy—it’s the same everywhere. What’s the harm, anyway? It’ll be a bit of a lark.
That assault course made everything I’d done before look easy. We went into it wearing armour and a full pack. Bill Wicks would yell and curse at us all the way, and from time to time he’d loose off a burst of live ammo just to help things along. I’d be going arm over arm along a rope or trying to get under a net with my profile lower than an alligator’s and I’d hear the rounds pass my ear. We’d finish the course, plastered with mud and sweat, and then Colonel Harken would turn up, looking cool in a spotless singlet and shorts. And he’d take us, still fully loaded, for a ten-mile run. Then he’d turn us over to Wicks for another go round the course while he went off to the officers’ mess for a shower and a drink.
The guys out there probably think this is the worst part, but they’ve got a nasty surprise coming.
I remember how Harken had broken it to us at one of the morning sessions.
“In this line of work, there’s a finite possibility that you’ll get yourselves kidnapped and held hostage. It’s vital you learn as much as you can about where you are, who’s holding you, and why. Knowledge is survival. And we’d like you to come back because we’ve spent a lot of time and money training you.”
Not because he thought we were worth saving or, God forbid, because he liked us. No, because we were expensive. That was the way he treated the men: like commodities, not people.
So we’d be taken to an unfamiliar town and shown the location on a map, and then driven round a whole maze of streets with a hood on. Then they’d show us the map again and ask us where we were. When we got the hang of that, they’d play us recordings of conversations from around the world, especially in trouble spots. We didn’t have to learn the language but we had to be able to identify it and maybe pick up a local accent. And then they’d fly us out to some of those places, go through the hooded exercise again, and at the end we had to know not only where we were, but which country, sometimes which town. That was hard, very hard, and some of the guys couldn’t hack it.
Like Perez. He flunked out at that point, and he was a damned good soldier. He went off to join the SEALS. For a quiet life, as he put it.
It was Harken who devised all these things.
“I want a bunch of men who can think with their brains and fight with their balls, not fight with their brains and think with their balls. Understood?”
So that’s what those new recruits had ahead of them: classes on every sort of directed energy and ballistic weapon and explosive, climate, geography, comparative religion, lectures from experts on major terrorist and militant outfits. And in the afternoons, circuit training, or the assault course, and the tab with Harken for good measure.
And what you had at the end of many months was an elite fighting force. No wonder Harken wanted us to stay alive.
Then again, I had that same ambition.