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Helmand’s Secret

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The Afghanistan’s rocky desert was completely still and silent. It stretched for many freezing miles in all directions and was strewn with ancient torn canyons and shifting sand dunes. Each feature was tantalisingly revealed in mysterious shapes of red, ochre and gold by the bright stars that punctuated the night sky and a low-hung sliver of dusty grey moonlight. It wasn’t lifeless but it was hostile to any outside visitor.

The serene landscape was rudely disrupted by the thudding hiss of two black helicopters flying low level in formation at over two hundred miles per hour. The forward support chopper was the heavily armed and armoured Apache AH-64 with its two man crew from the Army Air Corps. The second was a nimble Westland Lynx, with its three man crew and its invaluable cargo of four lethal specialists.

“This is tiger two two. Perimeter in seven minutes.” The gunnery officer behind the computer rattled off into her headset.

The illuminated display of instruments and screens cast colourful distortions on her reflective visor. “Radar is clear, over” she continued. Her dark lips precisely enounced each word. Her voice was relaxed and captivating like the wisp of smoke from a hell fire rocket launcher. She switched to the night-vision camera and started panning the area.

John, the pilot stole a brief glance to his right. He hadn’t known Chloe for that long but was impressed with the way she had handled herself on a previous mission. A confident and, either lucky or alarmingly good decision maker for such a young recruit, he recalled. She was only twenty five and adapted to the discipline of the British Army Air Corps life readily and eagerly.

She received a lot of attention, not only because she was an attractive female with a slim curvaceous figure or because she liked to use her tight combat attire to her advantage, but also because of the hard line she took with her fellow compatriots. He had witnessed a number of men lost for words or confounded by her rebukes only to be reduced further by her short cutting insults when they came back with any repost. She had natural good looks and never wore makeup on duty. It wasn’t always the case but she had seen other army women focus far too long on their appearance, always rushing to maintain their glamour, occasionally leading to the detriment of the unit’s punctuality. Chloe always supported her female comrades but carefully advised them to spend more time on more practical routines. As it was, the pilot had not engaged with her.

“Roger that!” He responded. “Heading to the DZ.”

“Yes can do! Package inbound!” came the Lynx pilot’s calm voice over the headset. He checked his instruments and called back into his mic. “Bravo team, approaching mailbox. Get ready to deploy”

“Hallo Burt.” Said Jack informally. He sounded happy to hear his own voice on the airwaves. “We’re good to go. I was getting bored of your inflight entertainment anyway.” The red light inside the cabin did little to highlight Jack’s grimace. His hand was locked around the safety rail. He looked over his squad with careful eyes, taking in their expressions and mentally rehearsing the squad disembarkation protocols.

Jack had been briefed days preceding the flight. He had studied the array of satellite images with his commanders and discussed every detail from every angle. He lived for the planning. At first glance, to the untrained eye, it was nothing more than a simple opium farming village, but there was something not quite right about this place. It would have been overlooked if Intel had not intercepted a short mobile phone call of a known operative talking about the significance of a nearby location. Some unusual road traffic gave Intel its first suspicions but it was the layout of the village itself that demanded a closer look. Most settlements are a cosy rambling assembly of dried mud brick homes in welcoming orange. But somehow, this village looked too efficiently planned and had an unusual cluster around a larger central building.

The Lynx pilot showed his adept skills as he came in fast and low below the ridge line and eased the nose of the Lynx skyward to air brake gently. There was no hurry. This was the ideal drop zone. It was five clicks out from the surveillance area and the elite crew could make their final approach safely in the night, take in the lie of the land, create their invisible spy holes and watch. They would go unnoticed for two weeks in the target area. It was standard routine.

Jack got up from his seat and stood hunched as he slid open the side door and felt the bite of the frigid night air mixed with turbulent sand against his exposed hands and face as it billowed into the cabin. He squinted out across the barren rocks, getting his bearings.

“Thanks for ride!” Jack called into his mic.

Seconds later the Lynx lightly touched down onto the canyon floor.

“Good luck guys, see you in a fortnight.” Burt replied. He turned to salute the crew.

Then the unexpected happened.

“Incoming! canlı bahis Incoming!” The urgent voice of the Apache pilot rang through the headphones. This was supposed to be a DMZ. There were no traces of activity in this area yet he saw the unmistakable trail of a rocket emerge from the canyon wall and heading straight for the grounded Lynx.

Jack was already clear, as his leader beckoned his men out and literally threw him through the exit. His boots hit the rocky stones and he was instinctively running towards the first point of cover when he heard the explosion behind him.

The grenade hit the far side of the helicopter square on and the energy ripped through the hull instantly. Fragments of metal and plastic flew through the interior, smashing and destroying anything in their path. The blast of air caught the underside of the rotors and the pressure kicked the chopper clean off the ground, flipping it into mid-air, and then dumping it ungraciously on its side. The four composite blades smashed into the ground with a deafening roar, pulverising rock to dust and shaking the helicopter into ugly pieces.

Chloe deftly slid the M230 joystick to her left, tracing the trajectory of the enemy rocket back to its origin. A number of pale grey specks barely hidden behind the rocks were visible on night vision. The under-mounted chain gun followed her movements precisely. She gently squeezed the trigger and laid down a blistering orange arc of 30mm gunfire. The pilot took her lead and adjusted his rear rotor with his pedals to angle his hellfire rocket salvos intent on obliterating the canyon from existence. But it was a canyon that was forged in hell. Another rocket came searing out from a hidden pocket in the canyon wall only a hundred meters from where the Apache was hovering.

The pilot pulled back on his stick but it was too late.

The Apache shook and protested angrily when the rear of the front cabin imploded and blew a rotor skyward. It lurched sideways and then sank suddenly. Chloe felt her heart leap as they fell, her finger knuckles white as she squeezed the life out of the trigger, as they spiralled downward. She blindly splayed bullets into every shadow while she still could. As the Apache span she was unable to angle the gun correctly and reluctantly let go.

“Fuck! hit! hit!” she yelled as the ground loomed below. She braced forward and screamed.

Jack watched in horror as the Lynx folded and exploded into a fireball behind him, quickly followed by the sickening sight of the bulky Apache losing control and throwing itself into a deadly spin and slamming heavily into the ground like a tranquilliser dart to an elephant in mid must. He began edging his way back to the blazing inferno that was the Lynx. His thoughts were on his comrades, his friends. He must help them. His head clung to a vision that Mac, his commander would be ok. He was built like an ox, he was the invincible rock. Jack didn’t get too far before he shielded his face against the heat. He turned away and closed his eyes when he saw the lifeless bodies entangled in the burning wreckage. He skirted around the wreck site once and then sank to his haunches. He paused a moment, punched the ground and took a long slow breath. Then he heaved himself up and, still crouching, made tracks down the canyon floor to the broken AH. He could hear the rotors still churning. At first he could see nothing but crackling flames, licking out of the rear of the inky blackness of the huge cockpit. He pulled open the door and was instantly relieved to see signs of life.

After impact, Chloe was rocked violently in her seat. Her helmet painfully smashed against her legs but after a moment of stunned silence she tried moving. Her muscles ached and protested but she sat up and reassessed the situation.

Her visor was dead. She ripped it off and looked to her pilot. He had been thrown sideways and was awkwardly hanging out of his seat by his safety belt. His head was twisted sideways, facing her and his eyes were open, staring at the floor.

“John! Talk to me john!” Her voice was holding back her panic.

Only his eyes balls moved. They rolled slowly upwards as she heard him utter a grim, hissing rattle. His mouth quivered but only frothy spittle dripped from his lips.

Chloe slapped open her own safety buckle and leant over to him, reaching out her arm.

“Give me your hand, John!” she yelled as she scrambled over her seat towards him.

There was no reaction. Fear spread out in his eyes like black smoke, then clouded over.

“John!” She cried. She didn’t want to move him. She smoothed his cheek with her open hand and felt for a pulse in his neck. She shivered as her palm felt the grotesque bony protrusion on his neck. She did her best not to recoil her hand and simply retracted it slowly and shakily.

That is when Jack opened the door.

Chloe jumped in her seat, yelled and flipped around like a cat, all in one movement. She had instinctively recoiled her bahis siteleri legs and Jack thought he was just about to be kicked flying back to the ground.

She wasn’t quite sure what to make of the apparition hanging from the helicopter. Jack’s sweaty face was smeared with black camo paint, his black combat jacket and helmet were all all but invisible against the dark background beyond. The huge protruding night vision goggles resting on his forehead made him look more giant insect than human. It was the whites of his eyes her attention was drawn to. They were wide open but upturned and deep set, with a smooth velvet green iris that she found welcome relief.

“Whaaa. I’m friendly!” He hollered back raising his hand in defence. He had a familiar voice, one that almost put her off guard.

He could register the distraught in her eyes.

He looked past Chloe to see the pilot and closed his eyes.

“Where the ..?” her head wanted to turn back to the remains of the Lynx. “How the…?” Her audible voice trailed off as she stared in disbelief.

“I’m a ghost!” He said flatly.

Jack’s mind was filtering. Black smoke was gradually filling the cabin, flames were burning near explosive ordinance and at any moment he was expecting fire from an unknown number of hostile units.

“It’s time to leave! Now!” He said promptly.

She was thinking the same but for different reasons. She wanted to get out of the cabin and get away from death. She reached behind her, hoping to grab her pack and SA80 rifle but the rear of the cabin was burning along with their kit. She punched the seat and leapt down from the cabin, refusing to grab the hand Jack offered to help her. They both ran, side by side, still crouching into the dark towards the base of the canyon wall, the only point of cover available.

They squatted low against the rock staring at the smouldering wrecks and friends they had left behind, catching their breath, as it poured out of their mouths into the cold dry air.

“Just you?” She said coolly.

Jack half turned towards her and nodded slowly with a look of scepticism.

“Nice!” He replied. He was used to plain talk but not quite so direct, so soon.

“They are in the caves up there.” She motioned with her head looking directly at him.

Her auburn hair was tied into a short ponytail that didn’t quite reach her neck. Her taut pale skin seemed to have an aurora in the night and she had pale blue eyes with a fiery-orange centre around the pupils that gave nothing away. She had thin tight lips, a long slender neck and slight shoulders that fit neatly into her desert camouflage uniform.

She was aware he was looking at her but she stared back, unblinking.

“I don’t know how many.” She continued.

Jack glanced at his rifle and then at hers, assessing the ammo they had between them.

“If we had radio, everything would be different” he muttered. He looked at her small figure but imagined she was less delicate than at first glance. Her arms folded, rubbing her arms to keep the cold at bay.

“We can’t stay here.” He said. He looked at his black regimental watch and then up at the stars. He already had a plan in mind for this outcome. That is what special forces training was all about. A plan for all eventualities, especially the shockingly, nasty, unlikely ones.

“Can you hike thirty miles?” He underestimated the distance he was expecting to travel to give her a sense of hope and encouragement.

“It’s more like forty five to the nearest FOB (Forward Operations Base) in Helmand province.” she said sarcastically.

He couldn’t help laugh inside. She was a lot smarter than he had anticipated.

“Yes.” He smirked. “Yes it is.”

“Of course I can make it! I’m a soldier in case you hadn’t noticed!” she said angrily. She did a good job of plucking the question from his head. She was enjoying this game. She liked to make it clear that she didn’t need patronising. He was charming enough but they always were.

She also had her own way of doing things. She was recalling the digital maps in her head. She had a gift when it came to spacial awareness and knew exactly where they were before they got shot down. She pictured the canyon and the angle it was facing when she was airborne and the bearing to the FOB.

“That way right?” She pointed with her open hand into the canyon wall.

She was indicating the precise North westerly bearing, where FOB Gibraltar stood some forty five miles away.

“Near enough!” He said curtly.

He rose to his feet and nodded for her to join him. She came to his side and they headed off into the night. They hiked twenty miles in the freezing darkness until they came upon a small outcrop of ridges rising high above the canyon floor above them. They made a daring ascent to a shadowy recess in the ridge line, that Jack had ambitions for.

Jack’s hands and shoulders were shivering as he peeked inside. He daren’t use a flash light and used his night bahis şirketleri vision goggles to check the inside for any unwelcome surprises. He spied a suitable place to collapse tucked away to the right of the entrance.

Going through the cave entrance was like entering a distant and ancient home far removed from the real hardship of the desert. It was still cold and dry and even though the cave ceiling arched high above them and the walls disappeared into the darkness, it afforded a welcome feeling of security.

“Over here.” He called quietly. His voice was calm and barely echoed, as if wrapped in cardboard. “I think we found ourselves an ice house!”

Chloe clung to the cave walls. She shuffled and edged her way in, barely able to hold her body up because of the aches from her seizing muscles. When she felt the soft sand on the underside of her boots she practically fell to the ground in a heap, slowly curling herself into a ball. Even the sand was cold.

Jack took a moment to look from the cave entrance. His desert GTX boots creaked as he crouched to the ground. He was suddenly aware of the silence. There were no animals, machinery or wind. The sky was as clear as glass and the air was locked rigid.

When he was satisfied they were safe, he padded back to Chloe, placed his rifle to his right, threw down his helmet and goggles and sidled up behind her to keep warm. She didn’t stir. She was probably already asleep. He could feel her cold skin and hoped his warmth would radiate through her. He could feel his heart beat more calmly in his chest and his breathing was slowing. He was thinking they would sleep the whole day tomorrow and hopefully march the last twenty five miles at night to Helmand river and make it to the FOB without further incident. He tried to put it out of his head.

She began to shiver and then she woke suddenly. She didn’t flinch when she realised he was spooned around her. Instead she seemed to relax for the first time.

Her legs extended in a stretch and then recoiled gradually.

“I’m fucking freezing” her voice almost tearful.

Was this the first time she showed her vulnerability he mulled.

He placed his hand around her shoulder and wiggled closer to her.

“You’re like an ice block!” He said honestly.

“At least I won’t show up on infrared.” She laughed.

He couldn’t help himself chuckling out loud especially in their ridiculous situation.

“I thought this position was supposed to keep us both warm!” She continued.

“Yeah but you need some serious defrosting first!” He heard his words hang in the air, repeating on him.

“What are you saying?” She said eventually, speaking into the cave.

“Nothing!” He blurted. “Just that you’re fucking cold!”

“Good.”

..

“For a minute I thought you were being rude!”

..

Then she laughed almost hysterically her body vibrating to her core.

When she finally stopped her body was unusually still.

“I feel terrible. If only…” Her voice hovered like her thoughts.

“What?”

“If only I had… ” she had to force the words from her throat.

“If only I had… spotted them.”

“Don’t” he responded quickly to interrupt her thought.

“Don’t blame yourself. Everyone had a chance to make a visual. They were dug in! Practically invisible. You were the first to respond!”

There was silence. He wanted to say more but he was sure he’d got his message across. She sighed quietly and then nothing for a few more minutes. They were both acutely aware of each other.

—-

“I can’t sleep.” She moaned.

“Ummm. Nor can I!” He said flatly. “Someone keeps talking!”

She giggled like a young girl and then there was silence again. The cold creeped across the cave and descended like sharpened spears.

Then he definitely felt her press her back against him and lift her head slightly. Even in the dark he could make out the slender lines of her pale neck against her darker combat top. He made nothing of it but he was feuding inside. His angst for the loss of his friends churned around in his thoughts. He knew she wasn’t to blame but somehow she was the focus of his frustration. He took a big intake of breath and exhaled slowly, trying to expel the rising knot of tension in his body.

Chloe’s mind was spinning too. She heard Jake breathing, it was heavy and laboured. She felt some debt to him for keeping her focused on escaping safely. He was straightforward and clear thinking and she liked that. It helped put her own mind in order.

She was replaying the moment when she saw the first RPG. She couldn’t stop cursing herself, if only she had paid closer attention to the canyon. Surely she would have been able to spot the insurgents and prevent so much loss. She twisted her body in anguish hoping for some relief.

When Chloe twisted her head back against his shoulder, he felt the loose threads of hair against his cheeks. Her scent wafted over him. It was pure, sweet and inviting like the nectar of a single flower in an oasis. He lent forward and placed his cheek against it.

As his stubble rubbed her skin she tipped her head away to expose more of her neck, murmuring gently.

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