10 July 2007

Ranger - Hortus Conclusus


I am in Afghanistan. I was assigned here briefly as an embed to assist a regular military force on what should have been a simple operation. Canadian intelligence received word that a Taliban narco-trafficking unit was on its way down from the mountain with a supply of papaver somniferum. The plan was relatively simple, divide into two units, one at each end of the mountain valley, on high ground and pin any convoy in a cross-fire. Ordinance on the valley road would finish anything left over.

In the light of day, briefing them on the plan was simple. Most of them seemed tired from the work of the past few months. A few feigned excitement at the prospect of another fight, but mostly out of sheer boredom. Fighting guaranteed at least an adrenaline rush, and the prospect of being shot or blown up on base without that adrenaline was the worst kind of fate. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to where the troops went before the sun began to set and we marched.

Our night equipment underscored the difference between our army and their mujaheddin. I cautioned against overconfidence. None of the soldiers here were aware that the Afghanis were carrying more precious cargo than poppies. I had been told that they held a Commando.

We set up a perimeter, and waited. The night stretched out and my mind began to wander. Had we received bad information? Had some simple issue forced the run to be postponed? Had they been alerted to our presence? It was less than four hours until dawn and I had checked weapons at least a dozen times. Then I got word from an advance scout that a truck was headed our way.

Another fifteen minutes with nothing. Everything was in place.

I heard mortar fire. Immediately thereafter I saw an ancient ZIL-131, with no lights, streaking out of the Valley at top speed. The mortar slammed into the mountain near us and then small arms fire began. I saw djinn moving around our position, from the front and below. The mountain opposite us exploded with responding fire, the tracers creating red smoke and an erie shadow-play on every ridge and crag. I heard explosions in the valley below and then our side of the mountain erupted. I grabbed one of the soldiers and headed down to where our point man should have opened fire an eternity ago.

When I got there I heard yelling in Arabic. They pointed their guns in the air and fired wildly.

“What are they yelling?”

“The first transport is away,” my soldier replied. “Feeling all right, sir?”

My stomach turned. A few feet away I saw another of our number. Not moving. Dead? No. The needle near his arm told another story. Too much time in Afghanistan. He had a shallow pulse and I felt mine race knowing that there had to be 20 or 30 men closing in on our position. I breathed in and let my lungs expand, dulling some of my immediate urges. But not all of them.

“What do we do?” my soldier said, looking at his brethren, as he moved into position to lay down a cover fire.

“Help,” I responded, my mind on other things. I ripped the Canadian flag from his shoulder, and began to go through his pockets. That flag shows up on night vision and is not to fall into enemy hands. But the gesture of rending it from his uniform was fulfilling. The ammo I tossed to my friend or kept for myself. The knife for my boot. The cigarettes, no doubt laced, the Taliban can keep. A few other choice items for my pack, and finally the offending item. I grabbed that needle and sent it into his jugular. Here is your fix. My new friend wretched. His eyes looked towards me but saw Longinus. I heard a second truck and then another explosion. Looking down in the valley, I saw a Russian truck blown across the road.

The djinn were on us and my friend opened fire. From the look on his face, I was fortunate his bullets found their mark in the enemy. We deserted the fallen soldier there on the mountain as a second round of mortars went airborne.

“Closed off garden,” a voice sputtered over the radio.

No, I thought. One is enough.

Ad victoriam,


07 July 2007

At Sea

The grey seas stretched on into infinity. There was no difference between the sea and the sky. I felt as if I were in a giant grey sphere. The grey skies and the gentle swell of the grey sea engendered a melancholy state of mind. I thought of a hamster in a ball, running about, terrified, amusing the children while they set loose the cat upon the globe containing the trapped hamster.

I could spoil the children's game. I could cheat the cat. I could slip over the railing and feed the sharks.

I laughed softly to myself. Far more exciting to break free and kill the cat...

Freedom. What is it? Are we free? Was I not compelled to take on Nascimento's contract? We argued late into the night. The bargain: Nwargo to Lagos to escort the shipment of guns to the Yoruba rebels. I was to kill a German who had failed to pay for "services rendered."

A crisis of conscience. Feed the fire in southern Nigeria. Kill a man, whom I did not know, with whom I had no quarrel. Life. Death. Peace. Conflict.

I looked again at his picture. The man whom I would kill. Nascimento had been vague. Perhaps Nascimento himself had no quarrel with this man. Perhaps it was merely another contract... another way to earn money.

Perhaps I should have stayed with Soleto in his monastery and sought the Truth.

I thought of our days at the Academy. Calrissian walked beside me along the path to the Sacred Grove, where the Maple was tall, beneath the canopy of branches which must never be cut. Our training was near completion. Soon we would venture forth to serve and protect Canada.

We reached the Sacred Grove. Maple seeds spun down towards us in greeting.

Calrissian's voice was soft but firm as he turned to me and spoke. "It is your duty as a Commando to serve the Truth."

"But what is the Truth?"

A faint smile accented General Calrissian's wise face. "That is your quest. To seek It out."

"Can I not find It in the holy texts?"

"They contain much wisdom. Many claim to have found the Truth in them. However, were it that easy, there would be no conflict."

"Perhaps conflict is the Truth."

"Perhaps. Perhaps." Calrissian placed his hands on my shoulders. His brown eyes seared through to the back of my skull. "Explore not only the path to your home. Drink not only from the well before your house. Eat not only the bread baked in your oven."

That seems eternities ago.

Now I sought a truth. I needed to know if Sarge had betrayed Nwargo and I.

Perhaps the only truth was that I would not grow old.

05 July 2007

Ranger – The Pit


Boleh merokok? The wretch asks me. I am waiting to leave Jakarta at last. I long for clean air.

I was ambushed at our arranged meeting place. I have no idea of how long they waited or how many were there, but they were smart enough to only reveal themselves at the last possible moment. I was only able to make contact with their first emissary, hearing the satisfying thunk as my walking stick cleared through where his windpipe had been. Eskrima. I knew I was cornered and for some reason as they began speaking to me I could not take my eyes off the man. Watching him clutch at his throat, the look in his eyes, the attempt to move air into and out of his lungs. I suppose I should have been paying more attention, but it was doubtful I would have remembered anything anyway. My shoulder felt warm and about that time I think the but end of a rifle found a home in the back of my skull.

I give my accommodations only two stars. At first, I got to hear a lot of talk about how Sarge had betrayed us, about how you were dead and about how Nwargo had finished you. They examined the letter you sent, invalidating their story, and the trinket contained within the envelope thinking it contained microfiche or a chip or some nonsense. They did not share my sense of humour about the whole thing. It was good at least to see the maple leaf again. Though the questioning was painful enough, it was the cuisine that really got to me (minus one star). The water was sewage quality and the food not much better. I craved poutine and in my delirium I let myself believe. After a few weeks the gendarme who had been questioning me disappeared. I was left with his underlings. They took great pleasure out of extracting the lead from my shoulder with their hunting knives.

I can only imagine my remaining captors were mercenaries rather than attached to some government. I heard far too many complaints about money and they each carried some different and clearly scavenged armament. They also kept debating whether they could pass me off as an American. Apparently, Americans have some value here.

I was surprised to find out I was still in the city when it was time for me to be moved. In my first effort to escape, I helped my captors hail a bajaj which I had noticed held only two lug nuts on one of its rear wheels. There was little time to create a diversion to check on the other two nuts, which I hoped had started to counter-rotate. No luck that day.

June was more of the same. Though one of the men who tried to befriend me in order to get more information was kind enough to tell me that “Gorman Brown was at 10 Dowling Station.” No doubt that information came at a price. Damn infection in my shoulder.

It must have been late June when I woke up one morning in the jungle alone. I can only assume a payment was missed. The next week was a test of endurance, but the wilderness again provided for me. Though it is not the rainy season here, I got to spend at least one night under the stars listening to a passing rainstorm and its million echoes on the canopy above. Again, I let it remind me of home.
The last few days of the month were spent in a Jakarta hospital. Cammy arrived from the embassy, and she has not changed. She sends her love.