Chalk One, The Islamic State
The two Blackhawks crossed the Iraqi border, running fast and low, their engines screaming, their rotors filling the air with an unholy clatter. They were only a couple hundred meters off the deck, low enough that Chief Petty Officer Bill Kendall saw the emerald blur of the desert flashing by in the black night. They never flew this low. Kendall flipped his night-vision goggles up on his helmet so he didn’t have to watch Anbar Province racing along beneath them.
Except for the instruments, the bird was pitch black—and crowded. Kendall would be first one out, so he was at the door along with the SEAL sniper who would cover their infil.
The two birds were flying low and following a carefully-planned zigzag route to keep off of Iraqi radar and away from Iraqi cities and villages. Technically, according to the U.S. Status of Forces agreement with Iraq, CRIMSON PALADIN was not exactly legal. And as ISIS grabbed up more of Iraq, Baghdad was becoming more and more cozy with Tehran. So it might be a very bad thing if the Iraqis knew about the mission.
Even worse, they were pushing into the terrorist-held part of Iraq (and Syria) known simply as the Islamic State.
The helos were flying heavy. They’d just tanked up on the righteous side of the border at a FARP, a small fuel depot that was little more than a flat, level stretch of sand and a large plastic tote filled with JP-8. Air Force support personnel had refueled the birds, the zoomies busting their humps to get the job done fast and keep the op on its time gates.
Timing was important because somewhere in the Persian Gulf, the USS George H. W. Bush was turning into the wind and commencing flight ops, launching a CAP of F/A-18s. Once airborne, the Super Hornets would run toward Saudi airspace at better than Mach 1.4. Officially the combat air patrol would go into the books as a joint U.S.-Saudi readiness ex. But if the Saudi AWACS orbiting high overhead detected the Iraqis scrambling fighters the Hornets had orders to juke across the border, just long enough to decoy the Iraqi F-16’s away from the helos.
Any of a dozen things could go wrong to completely fuck up the plan.
Just a regular day in the life of DEVGRU.
“Five minutes,” said the crew chief softly over the Troop Net.
They were flying to the “X”—flying directly to the target and assaulting down. It was a stupid-ass move. Far better to Fly to the “Y” and patrol in, so the bad guys never knew they were coming. But this op was highly sensitive, so they didn’t have the luxury of going in slow and careful.
They would have to go in fast and hard.
The five-minute call had gotten everyone’s attention. Those guys who had been able to get some sleep were waking up, checking their gear, checking safeties, doing radio checks. Kendall did the same, snugging up his suppressed Heckler & Koch 416 against his chest to make sure it wouldn’t get in his way when he was fast-roping out of the helo, then running through all of his cargo patches, putting a hand on each piece of gear, making sure it was all there. Check and double check.
Plan the dive, and dive the plan.
They were going into a tiny little village called Tasa. The village, which sat in a slight depression in the earth not grand enough to deserve the name “valley,” took its name from an Arabic word that meant “shallow bowl.” Tasa was smack-dab in the middle of Anbar, the home of ISIS, and only a stone’s throw from what had once been the Syrian border.
The intel types had been getting chatter that something big was brewing in the little village, though no one could say for sure what “something big” meant.
Their rules of engagement allowed them to shoot back, if a fighter shot first. The ROEs sucked, but that wasn’t exactly new either.
Kendall sat up a little straighter, his heart thrumming in his chest. The one-minute call always amped him up.
Tasa was a collection of mud-brick buildings separated by dusty roads. The CIA’s best estimate of population was no more than a few hundred with more room on the downside than the up. Their target was a two-story building on the northern edge of the village.
The helos banked right, coming around in an arc that would skirt the edge of the town and take the SEALs in from the east.
As Kendall watched, the other Blackhawk flared and settled into a hover-and-hold over the building. The plan was for Chalk Two to fast-rope down to the roof and clear down. Kendall’s team would rope down to the street, breach the front door, and clear their way up. The two squads would meet in the middle.
The town was dark—Kendall didn’t see a light anywhere—and there was no one moving anywhere, not in the compound, not in the streets, and as far as he could tell, not in any of the civilian homes.
He hoped it stayed that way.
Chalk One’s helo flared out and settled into its hover.
Rogers, the sniper to Kendall’s left, shouldered his fourteen-inch H&K, his eye on the scope, his finger on the trigger. An operator was vulnerable while roping out of a helo, but Kendall knew if someone aimed a weapon at him, Rogers would take him out, ROE or no ROE.
“GO GO GO,” called the crew chief.
Kendall grabbed the rope secured to the FRIES bar and swung his body out of the fuselage, zipping down the line. He was on the ground in seconds, subjected to a hail of dust and pebbles as the Blackhawk’s rotor wash kicked up a hurricane of debris.
But at least he hadn’t taken any fire.
He sprinted toward the building, hitting the wall to the right of the wooden door that was the back entrance.
Dark shapes were rapidly descending from the helicopter.
No one said anything. Everyone knew their jobs.
Kendall studied the street. Not one person had stepped out of his house to see what all the noise was and they still hadn’t taken any fire from the building. Could intel have fucked up? Maybe this wasn’t a target, after all. Maybe this was just a sleepy little town and the two-story building was city hall.
It wouldn’t be the first time they’d gotten bad gouge.
“Bravo One, Alfa One,” he said over the Command Net, his voice soft. “Got anything yet?”
Bravo One, BM1 Barney Michaelson, was leading Chalk Two up on the roof.
“Negative,” said Michaelson quietly.
By now, four of his guys were stacked on the door and two more were holding security at each corner of the building.
The clatter of rotors faded to silence as the Blackhawks climbed away to establish a low orbit clear of the LZ. Time to get to work.
“Chief, Doc. I think there’s something here you need to see.” It was their corpsman, HN2 Teddy Lucero. Lucero was a good operator, a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, steady in a firefight. But right now his voice sounded shaky.
Doc and Rottweiler were at the far corner of the building. Kendall didn’t like to cross in front of a door, because bad guys often shot through doors, but he trusted his people’s instincts, so he reached back and touched Cleveland’s shoulder, closed his hand into a fist and then ran over to the corner.
Rottweiler was watching the street, but Doc Lucero was bent over a black bundle at the building’s corner. Black meant cold, and at first, Kendall thought it was a sand bag. A sand bag would be very bad. It would mean that the fighters inside the two-story building were barricaded in. It would mean a bloody night for his team. But as he took a couple steps closer, he realized it wasn’t a sandbag, after all.
It was a boy.
“Eight or ten,” Doc whispered. “And as dead as can be.”
Kendall blinked. In all the years he’d been operating in the Middle East, this was something he’d never seen before. He had a hard time figuring what it might mean. In places like Baghdad—where Shiites and Sunnis lived together—there was sectarian violence, but Anbar was all Sunnis, all the time.
“Murdered?” he said slowly.
Doc shook his head helplessly. “No signs of trauma, Chief. No GSW. No lacerations.”
Kendall looked down at the little body and felt his chest clench with anger, but he didn’t understand what had happened to the child, so he didn’t know what to do with his anger. He looked down at that little face, eyes closed, face twisted into a rictus of terror or agony and shook his head.
Doc nodded. He knew the drill. Sometimes local leaders blamed American troops for atrocities. If this mission came to light, Kendall wanted plenty of evidence that the boy’s death hadn’t been the SEALs’ work.
He ran back to door.
Cleveland had already set the breaching charge, a twelve-inch long strip of explosive.
“Going explosive,” said Kendall over Troop Net.
His people cleared the door, taking cover at the near corner. Kendall counted Mississippis. When he got to three, a massive concussion ripped the door off its hinges, flinging it into the room.
Kendall followed the door in, the barrel of his H&K leading the way. He found himself in a narrow hallway, four doors, all closed. At the end of the hallway was a set of stairs. Going through closed doors was never good. Neither was going up stairs.
The building shook with another concussion, Chalk Two breaching the roof access. Right about now, the bad guys were realizing they were getting it from both ends.
And still they weren’t taking any fire.
The headshed had planned this op as an intel-gathering exercise, but that shouldn’t have meant that the terrorists wouldn’t defend their building. In Kendall’s considerable experience, good intel equaled a spirited defense.
So why wasn’t anyone shooting?
Kendall waved Neil Turner forward. The kid went from room to room with his thermal camera, shaking his head after every one.
So no one on the ground floor. And Kendall realized he wasn’t hearing the familiar rattle of AK-47s from the top floor either. Had they just taken down an empty building? Boy, were the intel guys gonna hear about this.
He jerked his head at Rosales. “Hold security on the stairs.” He looked at his three remaining people. “Turner and I will take the north-facing rooms. Cleveland and Rooster will clear the rooms to the south.”
Without another word, the four men split off to execute their assigned duties.
Kendall followed Turner into the first room on the left, covering the kid, his infrared laser drawing a bright, emerald circle on the far wall. The room was supposed to be empty, but the kid swept his rifle through an 180˚ circle to the left and Kendall cleared right.
The room was covered with papers, papers on the desk, papers stacked on chairs, papers carpeting the floor. Turner opened an expandable mesh bag and began stuffing the papers in, not stopping to even look at them.
Kendall noticed something pushed up against the eastern wall, a low hump blanketed by scattered paperwork. He crouched down and cleared the paper away.
It was a body.
A man in his late twenties, fatigues, neatly trimmed beard that traced the line of his chin, glossy black hair, lifeless eyes staring up at the ceiling.
“I have one MAM here,” said Kendall over Troop Net, using the acronym for military-aged male. “One MAM, dead.”
“We’ve got two in here,” said Cleveland, “both dead.”
“Four,” said Michaelson. “No signs of trauma.”
Kendall felt a chill wriggle down his back. Seven dead. And the little boy outside. Something was very wrong here. Very wrong.
He peered at the dead man. It was hard to tell with the night vision goggles, but… He tore the NVGs off and pulled out a white flashlight, shined it on the dead man. The lower half of his face was covered with snot. And Kendall smelled the sick, sweet odor of vomit. He moved the flashlight down the man’s body. Bloody vomit.
He thought back to the little boy. Maybe the kid had had snot on his face, too.
Kendall was about to order his people out of the building when Cleveland said, “Chief, we’ve got something bad. Second door, south side.”
Now what? “Coming,” he said.
He snapped off the white light and pulled the NVGs back on. He pushed into the hallway and then stepped into the room.
Ty Cleveland was a big, black kid from Philly, strong and fearless, never rattled by anything. Once he’d been on a Blackhawk that had lost both engines on take-off, smashing into the earth on its right side, snapping off the main rotor and sending blades of broken steel spinning off to deal death. Once man had been sliced in two. All Cleveland had said when they pulled him from the wreckage was, “That flight was much shorter than usual.”
But now he was trembling.
When Kendall stepped into the room he saw why.
There were half a dozen canisters stored in the room, six feet tall and two in diameter, and all of them fashioned from shiny, stainless steel. Kendall couldn’t read the flowing Arabic that script marked the tanks, but he did immediately understand two things. One was the Syrian flag painted on each canister, three bands of color, two stars laid out on the white middle band.
The second thing he recognized was a pair of Roman letters.
“Think they’re leaking?” asked Cleveland.
Suddenly it all made sense. The dead terrorists. The dead boy. The dark and quiet town.
Kendall licked his lips. “At least one of them was,” he said. “But not any more.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Because you’re not dead,” said Kendall.
“Right. But what if there’s like, you know, a small leak?”
Kendall felt the skin on the back of his skull prick. They weren’t prepared for this. Intel hadn’t said there might be WMD here. His guys weren’t even carrying gas masks. You couldn’t taste VX and you couldn’t smell VX, so how the hell were you supposed to know if it was killing you until it was too late?
But the fear wasn’t what was really bothering Kendall. What was really bothering him was something else.
For the very first time since he’d been doing sugar cookies on a cold and sandy Pacific beach at BUD/S, he didn’t know what he was supposed to do next.
They couldn’t leave this shit here.
And they couldn’t take it with them.
Take it one step at a time. Break the problem down into smaller pieces.
“Let’s get out of this room,” Kendall said softly.
Cleveland jerked his head up and down in a rough nod. “Roger that.”
They stepped into the hall and Kendall closed the door behind him. If the VX canisters were still leaking, maybe a closed door would buy them a few minutes.
He put his hand on Cleveland’s shoulders. “Go see Doc. Have him look you over.”
“I feel fine.”
Kendall shook his head. “That room is ground zero. You were exposed the longest. Go see Doc.”
Cleveland licked his lips and then nodded.
“Both teams, listen up,” he said softly. “We’ve just found nerve gas in the building. Anyone not carrying atropine get out now. The rest of you, take five minutes and gather what intel you can. Then out.”
He hesitated. He had a couple operators holding external security. Their job was to keep the locals out of the op, not invite them in.
But he had to know.
“Truck and Henderson, go knock on a couple doors and report back.”
He heard a chorus of yes chiefs, and then Troop Net fell to silence.
Kendall switched over to Command Net. He stayed in the hallway. He didn’t need to camp out in the building to report in, but he’d ordered his guys to stay, so he’d stay, too.
“You hear all that, headshed?”
“It’s not nerve gas,” said Lieutenant Norm Sampson. “Sorry, Chief, but it can’t be.”
“All the hostiles in the building are dead, sir. No signs of external trauma. Looks like they emptied their sinuses and their stomachs before they went. Outside I have a non-threat, a kid, same deal. I have six shiny canisters marked ‘VX’ and stamped with a Syrian flag. You tell me what it is, sir.”
There was nothing but static on the line for a moment.
“CIA says you’re wrong,” Sampson finally said.
Kendall let loose a dry chuckle. “You want me to tell you what part of my anatomy CIA can kiss?”
“That’s what I love about you, chief. You’re a team player.”
“What do you want me to do, Lieutenant?”
“Get me lots of pictures.”
“The and’s going to have to wait. I have an urgent request for the National Command Authority.”
The National Command Authority. Great. That meant the White House. That meant they were going to have to hang out and wait for some asshole in a suit to weigh the political pros and cons and make up his mind.
“Aye, aye, Lieutenant,” said Kendall unhappily.
He hated going back into that room. But he wasn’t going to send one of his guys in.
Kendall drew a deep breath of what he fervently hoped was fresh air and pushed into the room. He found a light switch and flipped it up. Bright white fluorescents flickered on. He pulled out his digital camera and began snapping pictures, careful to get the writing on the canisters, anything that looked like a serial number, and the Syrian flags. Then he started taking pictures of the rest of the room.
“Eagle down,” someone called over Troop Net.
Kendall jumped. One of his people was down.
And then he thought, Cleveland. Cleveland had been in this room, had been exposed to the VX longer than anyone else.
(Except for him.)
He turned and punched through the door, taking the hall at a dead run.
“Request immediate medivac.” The guy was shouting now, panicked. It was Rottweiler.
Kendall had sent Cleveland out to see Doc and Rottweiler was with Doc and now Rottweiler was calling it in. It had to be Tyrone. Tyrone Cleveland was dying because he didn’t get him out of the room soon enough.
He slammed through the back door and burst into the night. He saw people huddled around someone on the ground. Wait, was that— Kendall shook his head. Was that Cleveland standing there, looking down?
Then who was—
He sprinted toward the small group.
It was Doc, Doc Lucero was on the ground. The corpsman was shivering, sweat beading his forehead. A glistening blob of snot marked his upper lip.
“Can’t,” he gasped. “Breathe.”
“Atropine,” Kendall snapped.
“Got one in,” said Rottweiler, jerking his head at an autoinjector laying on the ground near Doc’s left leg.
“Diaze. Pam.” wheezed the corpsman.
Kendall snatched up the corpsman’s pack and started tearing through it. “Someone give me a God damn light,” he snarled.
Three men instantly had flashlights on him. He found the hypo, fumbling to tear the plastic wrapper off.
“Someone cut his sleeve.”
Cleveland dropped to his knees, jerked his dive knife off his belt and slashed the sleeve from wrist to shoulder. He tapped at his arm. “I got a vein.”
Kendall depressed the plunger and got a small spray of liquid. Then he stabbed the needle in.
Doc jerked and grunted.
The chief sat up, breathing hard and sweating. “How the hell did this happen?”
“The boy,” Doc Lucero whispered. “His clothes.”
Kendall felt a dawning sense of horror. “The VX, it was, it was trapped in his clothes?”
“Persistent,” said Doc faintly. “VX is persistent.”
Kendall found he couldn’t breathe. If one of the canister had been punctured, the gas would have quickly flooded the building, killing the terrorists. There was an open window on the second floor. The gas would have spread out, drifting down on the town like poisonous rain, killing everyone.
But some of the VX would have stayed in the building, sinking down, the heavy gas filling the building’s low points, slithering down the stairs, curling along the floor.
It was still there.
“Everyone out!” Kendall shouted over Troop Net. “Everyone out right now!”
Truck stepped up to the circle of operators. “We checked six houses, boss,” he said in a low voice. “No one alive in any of them.”
Kendall shook his head. “All right, we’ll hold the LZ until it’s time to exfil.” He looked at Rottweiler. “Take care of Doc, okay?”
“You got it, Chief.”
Kendall stepped back to the door, counting off men as they poured out of the building. Barney Michaelson was one of the first men out. The chief grabbed his shoulder.
“Hey, Boats, let me know that you’ve got all of Chalk Two.”
Michaelson’s head bobbed in acknowledgment. “That’s affirm.”
Kendall switched to Command Net. “El Tee, what’s the status of that medivac?”
“I’m sorry,” said Sampson, “but I can’t get another air asset in there.”
Kendall closed his eyes for a moment, puffed out a tired breath of air. He knew just what the lieutenant was saying.
(Cleveland was already out.)
All they had was the two Blackhawks and no way to slip another bird across the border.
(Rosales came out.)
They couldn’t send Doc out on one of the Blackhawks because they needed the helos to extract Chalks One and Two.
“Chalk Two’s clear,” said Michaelson.
And they couldn’t extract Chalks One and Two because the politicians still hadn’t decided what to do about the VX in the building.
Kendall felt the seconds ticking by: tick tick tick.
He swallowed, looked over at Doc laying on the ground.
And then he thought: Where’s Turner?
He grabbed Michaelson by the arm. “I got to go back in. Take charge out here.”
Kendall turned away—and then he turned back.
“Barney, have the demo guys rig the VX to blow.”
Michaelson blinked. “I’m sorry, you want—”
“A couple bricks of C4 on each canister. I want it to go up big.”
Michaelson pointed at the building. “Bill, that’s a mud brick building. That much C4 is going to blow down a wall.”
“I know,” said Kendall softly.
“We’re going to spread nerve gas all over the Iraqi countryside.”
“No, most of it will burn.”
“But not all of it.”
“Just do it, petty officer.”
Michaelson’s jaw set. “Bill—”
“Look, Barney, this is what Washington’s going to decide. We can’t take it with us and we can’t leave it here for the next al-Qaeda offshoot to discover, so what do you think they’ll have us do? And when they do give the order I want to be ready to execute so we can get our sick guys on the birds and lift off, is that okay with you?”
“Yes, Chief,” said Michaelson crisply.
“Good. Then do it please.”
And then he was running back into the damned building.
Because Turner still hadn’t come out.
The kid had been pulling papers off the floor, pulling them off the floor where all the VX left in the building had collected.
Kendall hustled down the hallway and shouldered his way into the first room on the left.
The kid was face down on the floor.
The chief sucked in a deep breath, held it, and leaned down. He hoisted the kid up, picking him up in a fireman’s carry, and ran for the open doorway. As soon he was outside, he dropped the boy to the ground and tore his own autoinjector out of his cargo pocket. He plunged the device into the kid’s thigh, slamming the atropine into his system.
The kids lips were blue. He was cyanotic. Kendall felt for a carotid pulse.
Kendall started doing chest compressions.
He looked up and shouted, “Cleveland. Get me some diazepam.”
The chief kept pushing on the kid’s chest, trying not to break ribs, but keeping the boy’s blood flowing, keeping it moving, trying not to be overamped, but God damn it, had to keep the kid’s blood flowing.
Tyrone was suddenly across from him, kneeling in the dirt, injecting the drug in the kid’s carotid artery.
Kendall was still pushing, pushing.
“Let me take over for you, Chief,” said Cleveland.
“I got it, Ty,” said Kendall, “thanks.”
Michaelson squatted down beside Cleveland. “Hey, Chief, I called the helos in. ETA is six minutes.” He paused. “You were right about Washington. They ordered us to go explosive.”
The order must have come through from the headshed, but Kendall hadn’t heard it come through the Command Net.
“Are we rigged?” he asked.
“We’ve got the gas room wired and ready to blow.”
The gas room.
The name sent a chill wriggling down his spine.
Kendall nodded. His arms were burning, but he kept at it, had to keep at it. “Good work, Barney. Get everyone on the birds. Set the timer for…let’s say five minutes. We’ll lift when your demo guy clears the building.”
“Aye, aye, Chief,” said Michaelson. He jumped up and ran off.
The rest of it was a blur to Kendall. He spent those last ten, fifteen minutes doing chest compressions, not even stopping when two of his guys hefted Turner on a stretcher and carried him to the waiting Blackhawk, its rotors spinning madly over their heads.
Somewhere in a distant part of himself, he felt the helo rising, felt it bank, moving in lazy circle, orbiting higher and higher, rising in a slow helix. So ended CRIMSON PALADIN.
Kendall didn’t stop the chest compressions on the boy—
(the dead boy)
—until the grubby, two-story building below them went up in a gout of orange fire that burned away the night. Suddenly the Blackhawks were running flat out to clear the danger area before the deadly gas drifted over them.
Only then did Kendall flop back on his butt, his back against the helo’s bulkhead, breathing hard, his arms two useless lengths of deadwood. Only then did he admit to himself what he’d known since the moment he’d picked up Neil Turner’s limp body and carried it out of the target building. The boy was dead.
And it was his fault.
LOOK FOR Dark Blade
AVAILABLE AT BOOKSTORES EVERYWHERE DECEMBER 31, 2016