Scramble Hot

The truck bounced around the corner toward the checkpoint.

Leon Campbell yawned and stretched, rolling over to the prone and getting behind his rifle, still resting on its bipod. He keyed his radio mike. “One truck. Two bodies—driver and passenger. Tarp coverin’ somethin’ in the truck bed.” His voice spoke in a marble-mouth Georgia drawl. His lazy brown eyes found the sight picture through the Les-Baer Custom SWAT’s scope. His brown hands, now much darker from the desert sun, slid into a familiar grip on the sniper rifle. He flipped off the safety and his index finger rested against the trigger guard.

Leon had a nice pair of gloves, but didn’t like having them on for “surgical work.” For some reason, it was a lot more difficult for him sensing when the sears would trip with glove material between his skin and the trigger—no matter how thin that material was.

“Get ready, girl,” he told the three-year old shepherd mix sharing the shade of a jujube tree with him. Shotgun rose from her sitting position so that all four of her legs were straightened and she watched the truck as he did.

Below the hill Leon and Shotgun observed from, Johnny and Drew got into position, their rifles at the ready. Drew stood in the roadway with one hand raised, palm toward the approaching vehicle, while Johnny remained off to the side.

The truck rolled to a stop some ten meters from Drew. Johnny stepped up to the driver’s window and asked the standard questions. The driver produced his ID and answered the questions.

Examining their faces through the scope, Leon recognized both men in the cab as regular visitors to the power plant. But that meant nothing, of course, in this part of the world.

“On station,” he said, and Shotgun charged down the hill to the truck.

She sniffed all the way around the vehicle and made no fuss. Now Johnny had the two Iraqis get out of the cab. Drew sidled over to stand a safe distance from both of them while Johnny moved around back to have a look under the tarp. Seeing nothing that caused alarm, he lifted Shotgun off the ground and let her snoop around in the truck bed. She finished and wagged her tail a bit.

Satisfied, Johnny put her back on the ground. They let the two men climb back in the vehicle and start it, then waved them on their way.

Shotgun climbed back up the hill and joined Leon with a wagging tail and a dripping tongue. Leon gave her a piece of jerky and said, “Good girl.”

“Mechanic, this is Home Alone, over?” squawked the radio.

“This’s Mechanic,” Leon replied. “I copy, Home Alone. Over.”

“Scramble hot. Romeo-Fox is hammer down, over?”

Leon bolted upright, gathering his rifle and gear. It was time to play war, finally. He’d shot nothing but paper targets for months.

The quick reaction force (Quebec-Romeo-Foxtrot, or Romeo Fox for short) only scrambled when hostile contact was made. “Hot” meant live rounds were already flying. Home Alone was the current call sign for their base camp, and Statler was the one minding the store today.

Leon ran down the opposite hill slope from the checkpoint, where the HMMWV was parked, Shotgun trotting along beside him. Over the radio, Statler gave him the code for the link-up site.

A rough, dusty ride later and Leon’s Hummer rolled up next to the QRF’s helipad. There were two dozen men standing near the ugly old surplus CH-47 Chinook, all armed to the teeth but weighted down with little more than their ammo and ballistic protection.

The other Black American working for Secure Solutions, International happened to be the vice president, Jake McCallum—who was also leader of the quick reaction force. McCallum had the frame of an NBA superstar, but with a lot more muscle on it. His stature was intimidating for a lot of men, offset by a face which somewhat resembled the comedian Eddie Murphy’s.

There was nothing comical about Mac’s expression right now. He was hungrier than anyone else in SSI to get some trigger time and now that it was imminent, he was all business.

“Okay, we’re all here,” Mac said. “Gather ‘round.”

He squatted at the corner of the helipad, spreading a topographic map out, then setting an aerial photograph next to it. The force mobbed in around him.

Mac pointed to a grid on the map. “Here’s where we’re going. Anybody remember those guys from Interpol that came by last week?”

A few men nodded.

“Well,” Mac said, “they got a lead on Liberace.”

“Liberace” was a confirmed leader of a terror cell responsible for over 50 deaths, most of them westerners, with some west-friendly Iraqis, mostly unfortunate Sunnis, thrown in. Nobody could pronounce his real name.

Mac pointed at the photo. “Them and some Iraqi cops came into this place, showing mugshots, asking questions, as if they were in Mayberry with Sheriff Taylor and Barney Fife.”

Most of the men looked confused by this reference. Mac frowned. He had forgotten that the younger generations grew up with a lot more than three channels to watch; all kinds of cartoons and kids’ shows to choose from and never had to watch reruns in their life.

“Like they were on CSI or Law and Order or something. Never mind. As you can see, it’s a collection of 13 abandoned buildings. It’s been populated for a while now, by what were assumed to be just a few families of squatters.”

Leon leaned in to get a better look over the shoulders of a couple contractors. The compound was a scattershot of various-sized flat-roofed structures, out in the middle of nowhere.

“One of the cops has been killed,” Mac went on, “two others wounded. They’ve locked themselves in this small building, here. They’ve only got sidearms and not much ammo to hold off the hostiles. It’s only a matter of time before the door or a wall is breached. When the jihadis give up on having hostages to torture and decide to just kill them, they’ll run up there and plant some demolitions, or just fire an RPG at the building. We gotta get there first.”

A couple of the mercs barked their enthusiasm.

Mac nodded, approvingly, shifting focus back to the map. “We’re coming in east-southeast. The chopper’s gonna set us down in this draw right here. It’s got to be a quick offload, folks. Pilot drops the ramp; we unass the bird; he continues on for the first gun run. It needs to happen so quick that the hostiles don’t realize he’s dropped us off.” Mac pointed back to the photo. “First Squad takes this building with Second in overwatch. Once secure, Second Squad takes this building right next to it.”

Mac continued on with the plan, only going over it once and entertaining few questions afterward. He was investing supreme confidence in his squad and team-leaders because, frankly, he had no choice with the time crunch he was faced with. One question he did answer pertained to the enemy’s strength.

“Estimate is ten armed men,” Mac said, then his expression turned especially grim. “Twice that many women, and an unknown number of rugrats.”

The mercs moaned, groaned and cursed.

“I know. I know,” Mac said. “But this is nothing new. When they can’t hit us, then disappear inside a mosque, they hide behind women and children. They understand that ‘weak infidels’ don’t normally have the stomach for that.” He took a deep breath and tried to grin. “But we’re a bunch of bloodthirsty, cold-hearted mercenaries, right?”

“Hoo-hah!” cried one of the Brits.

Mac abandoned the morbid humor tack, and nodded toward the pilot, who nodded back, shared a look with his copilot and climbed inside the Chinook. “If we go wheels-up right now, we’ll catch them during the next call to prayer.” He pointed at a building in the photo. “The women all gather together in this building.” He made eye contact with Leon and Warner, one of the machinegunners. “That’s why I want you guys where I put you. You get me?”

Leon nodded. “Roger that.”

“Loud and clear,” Warner said, in his Cockney accent.

The Chinook’s turbines whined to life, and the rotors began to turn.

“One minute for weapons check,” Mac shouted over the noise of the turbines. “Then let’s go.”

The mercs formed a rank facing west, where there was nothing but empty countryside, and did a brief test fire. The crackle of small arms echoed across the plain, then safeties clicked back on and they loaded the bird, some topping off their magazines as they went.

 

This was an excerpt from Tier Zero.

Excerpt #1.

Excerpt #3.

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