by Michael McLean
Bullets buzzed through the air like angry hornets. Those that didn’t hit dirt ricocheted randomly from rock outcrops. Mark Grayson hunkered down behind a meager outcrop as the unmistakable barks of a dozen or more Kalashnikov AK-47 rifles were answered sporadically by bursts from his outnumbered escort’s automatic weapons. A few feet away the lifeless eyes of a young corporal stared at him, the right side of his torso blown away by an RPG fired from the rocky hill above their position. Grayson cursed; it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Ten yards away he could see First Lieutenant Chloe Eastman crouched next to another member of her special operations team, who was sprawled out behind a jumble of boulders. The sleeve covering her left arm was ripped and soaked with blood, the damage done by shrapnel from the same RPG that had killed the corporal. She had been on the radio and was undoubtedly calling for support. He couldn’t tell the status of the man on the ground. Time was of the essence now as the gunfire from above was slowing. Afternoon shadows were growing long, and they would soon be moving down. They weren’t willing to use more RPGs, undoubtedly saving whatever warheads they possessed to take out the helicopters that would surely be coming.
Grayson had immediately picked up the young man’s M4A1 carbine before diving for cover. Owning a Smith & Wesson M&P 15, he was familiar with the action. That it was a fully automatic weapon was definitely a plus that gave him a small measure of reassurance. The sidearm issued him, a Beretta nine-millimeter pistol, was useless at these distances, as was his own Kimber Ultra Covert .45 caliber in its ankle holster. Glancing back toward the lieutenant, he saw that she had slumped down behind her rock cover, her attractive ebony face grimacing in pain. She needed medical help.
The remainder of the team that had been assigned to escort him was in two locations behind cover, all within fifty yards. The closest pair of soldiers was in a bad spot with minimal opportunity to be effective. The three remaining soldiers were keeping the attackers at bay but had to be running low on ammunition. Grayson pushed to the side of the outcrop and studied the hillside. A movement caught his attention as he watched two men move downhill. Waiting, he aimed and guessed correctly as to their eagerness to meet their allotted virgins. He felt the carbine recoil as it spat death in their direction with success. Both went down. But his rocky cover received heavy fire in return. He had to get positioned to take out the man with the grenade launcher.
A hundred yards away was the clearing that had served as their landing zone. On one side nearly two dozen bags were piled in a heap, awaiting the return of their helicopter. Each of the heavy-duty, desert-camouflage canvas bags contained smaller bags that held geological samples of rock. Samples that Grayson believed would yield economic amounts of rare earth elements, or REE, minerals. It was hard to believe that from this lonely spot in Tajikistan, it was less distance to Kabul, Afghanistan or Islamabad, Pakistan than it was from his home in Santa Fe to El Paso, Texas. What most people in the western world didn’t realize was that the colonial boundaries, still in use, meant very little, if anything, to the inhabitants of the region—including those on the hillside above them. Tajik was the official language of Tajikistan, but Russian was commonly spoken in business and government. Interestingly, while the population of the country was still 90 percent Muslim, the Chinese were diligently pursuing mineral exploration and development—including REEs.
This was supposed to be the second and final day of sampling. The big Blackhawk helicopter that brought them to this place was designed to carry eleven fully outfitted soldiers and a crew of three. The decision had been made the day before to cut out two soldiers and the crew chief on the pickup flights in order to offset the weight of some six hundred pounds of geologic samples each day. All of this to gather firsthand information on potential REE deposits reported to exist in the area. Grayson was convinced they were not only real but abundant. They just had to get out alive.
It was his skilled, no-nonsense reputation that had landed him here. The contract with the DOD’s Defense Logistics Agency, with focus on strategic materials, was lucrative. It was a job that required a diverse skill set which seemed a natural for him, having worked successfully through a variety of other mostly covert contracts in dangerous places inhabited by dangerous people.
A fusillade of fire from the two groups of soldiers snapped his reverie. The newest group of dangerous people was no doubt advancing. Peering from his cover, he saw the man with the grenade launcher duck behind a large boulder with the launcher armed. Waiting, Grayson knew the man would not fire until he had a valuable target. Shifting in the dirt so he could watch the man, he heard a sound. Almost imperceptible at first, the unmistakable sound of helicopter rotors grew quickly in volume. He had to take out Mister Grenade Launcher before the Blackhawk appeared.
Suddenly the air was filled with a cacophony of sound. Chaos fell from the sky as two AH-64 Apache Longbow attack helicopters descended with their M230 chain guns raining hell upon the hillside above. Grayson looked and was rewarded by the grenade launcher raising and being aimed at the lead chopper. Bullets from his own carbine literally ripped the man in half as the launcher fell harmlessly to the ground. Watching to see if there were any takers on recovering it, he saw no movement at all on the slope. Two Hydra seventy-millimeter rockets exploded and then two more. A minute passed and suddenly there was no sound of any opposition gunfire.
The two attack helicopters backed off and maintained positions as the Blackhawk came into view. Jumping up, Grayson ran to the lieutenant and started working on her. She had lost a lot of blood, and he couldn’t tell if the tears streaming down her face were from pain or something else. If not completely in shock, she would be there momentarily. In an instant he evaluated the scene and could see the large area of blood-soaked ground surrounding the prone soldier. A large part of his upper right leg had been shredded, the femoral artery included.
Focusing on the lieutenant, he swiftly applied pressure to her arm to control the bleeding and did his best to reassure her.
With her right hand she unexpectedly clutched his arm in a vise-grip, tears still flowing. “My babies. Oh, please, I want to see my babies again.”
“Don’t you worry. You’re going to see them. Tell me about your children,” Grayson said, trying to get her mind off death.
“My boy, Jimmy, is three and my little girl, Becky, she just turned five and starts kindergarten this year,” she said, breathing heavily and releasing some of her grip on his arm.
“I bet they’re beautiful like their mother,” he replied as he looked in the direction of the Blackhawk. The first people on the ground were medics and, thankfully, headed in his direction. One Apache helicopter was holding a defensive position while the other circled the area, searching for any remaining pockets of opposition.
The first medic reached them and politely but professionally took charge. “Good job, sir. We’ll take it from here.” In a matter of moments, he had given her morphine and taken over Grayson’s position as the second medic arrived.
“All right, but she needs to get home and see her kids,” Grayson replied, gripping her good shoulder in an effort to offer reassurance.
Lieutenant Chloe Eastman looked up with a pained smile. “Thank you,” she whispered as the morphine started to take effect.
Nodding his head, he walked toward the Blackhawk and the bags of samples that had cost two good men their lives and jeopardized one hell of a fine woman’s future. The other soldiers were attending to the bodies of their fallen comrades. Considering the situation, Grayson stopped to ask the pilot where the bags should go to get the proper weight distribution. The men had a mission, but the expressions of both the pilot and co-pilot registered a certain level of disgust at the high cost associated with the bags. He understood. His own feelings were aligned with their point of view. Obeying instructions and not wanting to get in anyone’s way, he dutifully started packing bags to the helicopter.
Fifteen minutes into the task, a muscular young man jogged over to help. Picking up a bag in each hand, Staff Sergeant Amalio Velasquez grinned. “As soon as the bags are on board, we’ll load the casualties and then the lieutenant. She’s stabilized but we need to get her off first and to the hospital. Besides, I figured you could use a hand.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it.”
“No problem, sir. And don’t worry. Nobody thinks you’re responsible for this mess. This is what we do, but to be honest, it went too easy yesterday and we got blindsided today.”
Ten minutes later the bags were on board and secured. The two body bags were loaded by the sergeant’s men, and Lieutenant Eastman was made as comfortable as possible.
Giving a high sign to the pilot, Velasquez shouted to the remaining soldiers, “Saddle and ride, men.” He was the last one in and secured the door as the Blackhawk’s four-bladed main rotor and tail rotor started to turn.
Velasquez took a seat next to Grayson and watched as the civilian deftly buckled himself into a seat. As the two General Electric 1,560-horsepower turboshaft engines reached full power, both men finally breathed a sigh of relief. Slowly the helicopter lifted and turned one hundred eighty degrees, then headed southwest, followed closely by the two Apache Longbow escorts.
Grayson calculated their trip back would take a little over an hour. Their destination was the largest military base in Afghanistan, Bagram Air Base. Jointly operated by the United States Air Force and Army, the air base also hosted personnel from the U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, and other coalition forces. The soldiers jammed in the helicopter with him were part of the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division.
Over the noise of the Blackhawk, Velasquez nodded toward the pile of bags. “So what’s with the rocks that’s worth the lives of my men?”
Grayson pondered the question, then responded, “Those samples are going to be analyzed for rare earth minerals. Doesn’t sound like much, but the elements that I think are contained in those rocks are used in a multitude of applications. Yttrium, for example, is used in laser targeting, sonar, and radar applications—all essential for the military. Other rare earth elements are used in virtually in every cell phone, computer, and television in the world, and there’s more demand every second. The minerals are strategic assets for the United States as well as China, Russia, and every other technologically advanced country in the world. Without them we become second- or third-class countries, and those who control the elements control the technology and, in turn, the political and military environment.”
“I never would have guessed. So it is important and not just a costly boondoggle,” Velasquez said, nodding in agreement at Grayson’s explanation.
The sergeant fell silent as the helicopter moved through the late afternoon sky. Grayson’s thoughts turned to his home in far-off Santa Fe. With any luck he would be home in a few days. Autumn would be giving way to winter, and snow would soon be on the Jemez Mountains to the west and the peaks rising above the city. Perhaps he could get together with his friend and colleague Nick Reynolds and swap stories. Stationed in Albuquerque, the man was one of his best friends but always nudging him to join the FBI. He had considered it but the routine and bureaucracy were real turn-offs. Aside from getting shot at and the excitement of the last few hours, he still preferred a variety of challenges and working for himself. For as long as he could remember, he had been a self-reliant individual and had no intention of giving that up. But he also knew that deep inside, there was an empty spot that needed something or someone to make him complete. All in good time.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing