Deckard touched down in Kabul where he was met by a minder, a bored-looking private security contractor who escorted him to a waiting area where he sat quietly until his name was called. Boarding a CASA C-212, the aircraft took off down the runway like a shot, forcing Deckard to hold on to the fuselage to avoid being thrown out of his seat. No one bothered to tell him what their destination was. There were several pallets of supplies on board, probably destined for some remote combat outpost in the hinterlands somewhere. Deckard was just a strap-hanger hitching a ride.
Drifting off to sleep, he woke with a start as the landing gear bounced off a dirt runway. The CASA spun around at the end of the landing strip as the loadmaster lowered the ramp. Hooking a thumb out into the dusty runway, he indicated to Deckard that it was time for him to unass himself from their bird so they could head to their final destination.
Stepping off the ramp, Deckard moved to the side to avoid the CASA as it powered back down the runway and soared off into the air. He soon oriented himself, recognizing where he was by identifying the aircraft graveyard to the side of the runway. There were old Russian planes and helicopters that sat collecting rust and dust under the Afghan sun.
He was at FOB Chapman in Southern Afghanistan. He had passed through the base several times back when he used to do work for Ground Branch.
Left to his own devices, Deckard walked alongside the runway. He spotted a few contractors milling about in the distance around some of the buildings, but there was no one waiting for him or even acknowledging his presence. Heat coming up off the ground created a mirage, making the buildings ahead of him seem to ripple in the morning light.
It was a long walk, so Deckard undid a couple buttons on his North Face shirt to try to get some air. By the time he walked up to the camp, a pickup truck had come through the gate and cruised up alongside him. The driver wore a pair of sunglasses and sported a half assed beard and mustache. His skin was dark, Filipino maybe.
“You Deckard?” the driver asked.
The driver got out and patted Deckard down. All he had in his pockets was his alias passport, a credit card, and the other documents that Sarah had issued him in DC.
Deckard did as he was told, slamming the door as he jumped into the passenger seat. Spinning the wheel, the driver took them back out through the gate. Several Afghan guards and a CIA Global Response Staff contractor opened the gate for them. Outside, they drove onto a dirt road, up the side of a dry stream bed and onto a paved road heading south.
His escort wasn’t the talkative type, apparently and didn’t even give a name. Deckard noted the Glock 19 strapped to the driver’s hip and the AK sitting on the backseat. Deckard was unarmed. If shit went sideways, he’d go for the AK and it would be a mad minute. Whatever happened, happened.
He sniffed at the familiar scent that hung in the air as the pickup truck kicked up a long plume of dust in its wake. Large patches of poorly farmed plots of land zipped by on both sides, small blotches of green showing where the Afghans had managed to irrigate the soil. Large, walled compounds that housed entire families sat amid the open fields.
Holding on to the handle on the door, Deckard bounced as the driver launched them down the side of an embankment, going off-road. They were rumbling across the Khowst bowl. The flat, lunar landscape stretched across the earth in all directions until the heat mirage blended it into the distant snow-capped mountains. Those mountains could leave men dead in seconds, Deckard knew from first-hand experience. He had last been in Afghanistan less than six months ago with Samruk International when they cleared out an Afghan drug lord’s enclave from his mountain redoubt.
They drove through the morning. Deckard squinted in the sunlight but the driver wore his dark sunglasses and remained stoic, unphased by the passing terrain or his passenger. Deckard tried to place him.
Of the four words he had muttered, the accent was clearly American. He wore Solomon cross-trainers, blue jeans, and an Afghanistan soccer jersey. Even sitting down, Deckard could tell that the driver was short, maybe five foot five. His skin was brown and had probably darkened since he had been in country. Most likely of Filipino descent. There were Filipino-Americans who served in US Special Operations Forces, but it could also be possible that he was a veteran of the Filipino Naval Special Operations Group which did extensive training and exchange programs from his home country to the U.S. Navy SEALs.
Time would tell.
The driver reached behind Deckard’s seat and grabbed a couple bottles of water. He tossed one to his passenger while unscrewing the cap on the other, locking the wheel by holding it between his knees.
It was early afternoon by the time they rolled up on their destination, a lone compound near a spur coming off the mountains. Clicking a handheld radio, the driver announced their arrival and someone inside opened the gate for them. Pulling inside the thick earthen walls, the driver parked alongside the mud and stone structure in the center of the compound. There was one other pickup truck and a large Afghan janga truck inside the compound.
Covered from top to bottom with colorful murals, ribbons, blue and yellow sashes, and hanging chimes, the trucks were used by locals for transporting materials, the outside of the vehicles painted up and decorated for good luck.
“Wait here,” the driver instructed as they stepped out of the pickup and slammed the doors. The Filipino disappeared inside the stone hut while the gate guard who had let them in strode towards him. His eyes were slits as he stared at Deckard with contempt. He wasn’t just sizing up the newcomer. There was something more. He looked at him like he was a piece of steak on a table. The gate guard wore dusty civilian clothes with an AK-47 slung over his back. He readjusted it on his shoulder as he blew past Deckard and followed the driver inside.
Leaning up against the pickup, Deckard felt that everything inside the compound had gotten a little too quiet. In the cab of the truck, he could see the rifle that the driver had left behind. It put him somewhat at ease. A loaded rifle would not have been left there if they were planning to kill him. It wouldn’t have been a bad plan from their point of view. If this really was Liquid Sky, they could run a counter-intelligence operation by luring in potential infiltrators and then killing them. It would send a hell of a message to anyone else who might have been thinking along the same lines. Who was really laying a trap for whom?
A hulking figure emerged from inside the stone building. He was built like a linebacker with arms and legs like tree trunks. Coming in around six foot three, he was almost as wide as he was tall. As he approached Deckard, his eyes drilled holes into the newcomer.
“You’re Deckard?” he asked as if his driver may have picked up the wrong person. “Tell me a story,” he said as he ran a hand over his goatee.
“What kind of story?” Deckard said with a frown.
“A Deckard story. One of the good ones. The kind I hear are so outlandish, so fucking bizarre, I don’t know what to think. I’ve seen some shit in my day but the stuff I hear about you makes me wonder.”
“What have you heard? I will tell you if its real or not.”
“Heard you are some kind of rogue operator. Deckard: used to be shit hot in Army Special Operations, got picked up by the Agency, and then you fucked up so they PNG’ed you.”
“Vigilante Dirty Harry shit, assassinating terrorists. Working as a singleton to rescue a Delta team in Colombia.”
“Rumors going around that you almost started a war with the Chinese in Burma, cleaning out one of these Hodji drug lords from his mountain fortress,” the man motioned to the Hindu Kush mountains that towered above them. “Even heard you were involved with para-military operations in Mexico.”
“Some of those stories are exaggerated.”
“What about this tale people whisper in hushed tones about some cruise liner in the Pacific Ocean. The one that sank with all hands on board, the ship packed with high level shot callers in government and business. You involved in that?”
“They call it one of the world’s largest public safety accidents.”
“Public safety accident?”
“That’s what they say. Like the Hindenburg.”
“Like the Hindenburg?”
“Fucking Nazi zeppelin.”
“And I suppose that story is just a tall tale.”
“Must be. Can’t believe every conspiracy theory you hear.”
“You can call me Bill,” he told Deckard while reaching into his pocket and pulling out his Oakley sunglasses. “I run this outfit. Here is the deal. You check out as legit, some ugly shit in your past but that is the name of the game. We’ve only had a day to prepare for a mission that is probably going to go down tonight. You are tagging along. Probationary status only. You kit up, go where you are told, do what you are told. No questions. My team does the op. You just pull security and make sure we don’t get our asses shot off. Got it?”
“Come with me.”
Bill led him inside the stone building which served as their operations center. The conditions were spartan inside. Some gear and weapons were stacked up against one wall. A couple desks had been improvised by laying plywood on top of stacked cinder blocks.
Deckard’s driver sat at one of the desks, looking at an open laptop that displayed satellite photography. He had an Iridium satellite phone pressed to his ear, a wire from it leading out a window to an uplink antennae on the roof. His shirt was pulled up a little, revealing the handle of a Filipino karambit fighting knife.
“You’ve met Ramon,” Bill informed him. Now he had a name to go with the face. Deckard was taking it all in. Who was Ramon on the phone with? Someone back in Kabul? Someone in the field? As Bill had pointed out, it wasn’t his place to ask questions.
“This is the team you’ll be working with.”
Bill waved towards the men lounging around the room. “Your gear is in the corner over there. We go in like Indig. This is a low-vis operation, so everyone will be sterile when we leave the wire. If you die, we will try to recover your body, not because we like you, but in order to protect our OPSEC. If you get left out there for the enemy to pick over, you will be presumed to be a white mercenary, as you will have no identification papers on you and no American weapons or gear.”
Bill sat down in front of another computer and opened his email.
“Get your kit together. We are standby to launch at 2230.”
The three other operators on the team stared at Deckard. They were sizing him up like a piece of meat. There were no handshakes or high fives. It wasn’t just a professional distrust that stemmed from them not having any past experiences together. Deckard felt like he had just walked into a meeting with the mafia. There was no brotherhood, just a nest of vipers who could turn on him at any moment.
He had expected nothing less, but the question remained, was this Liquid Sky?
Recognizing one of the team members as the guy who had opened the gate for them, Deckard tried to piece together who these guys were. This one had long, slicked back hair, looked like he was well manicured even out in the field. He was the pretty boy on the team. He had a mobile game console fired up and was engrossed in shooting up space aliens or something, not even bothering to look up at Deckard again. The other two were built like Bill and looked like they had been drafted from an NFL lineup. One of them snorted at Deckard before going back to flipping through a magazine. The other was busy cleaning his Glock pistol.
Deckard went to the pile of gear that Bill had pointed him towards as being his for the mission. There was a locally made man dress, the dishdasha that Afghan men wore. There was also some el cheapo concealable body armor made in Latin America, a Glock with locally procured cloth holster, an AK-47, a Chinese chest rig for spare magazines and a few other odds and ends. It wasn’t much to work with. If their mission was to be completely denied, then they had to use local weapons and kit. No high tech on this mission.
It got him thinking again. Why the need for deniability? U.S. Special Operations Forces were still conducting counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan on a regular basis. With Conventional Forces withdrawing, it was left to Special Operations to perform maintenance on any Islamist fools who went past a certain threshold. Once a terrorist started acting up too much, they would send in shooters to sort him out. Or a drone strike. It had become such a sport that Delta Force was even sending their students from the Operator Training Course to Afghanistan for their final exam, a live combat operation.
So what was the need for this team and their plausible deniability?
Deckard spent an hour and a half squaring his kit away. He had a small commercial radio which he made sure was charged up with a full battery. He loaded up five AK-47 magazines from a box of loose ammunition before loading up his Glock magazines as well. Then, he field-stripped both weapons and conducted functions checks. He was careful and deliberate about this final task; it was possible that Bill had his weapons rendered inert by messing with the trigger mechanism or filing down the firing pins, but both weapons were good to go.
After getting his kit together the way he wanted it, he went off and found a cardboard box full of bottled water. Twisting off the cap, he downed half a bottle in one gulp. He needed to be hydrated if they were going to be out all night cruising through ‘vills and scaling ridgelines.
As he sipped the rest of the water he tried to place Bill and his team. It seemed that his intuition had been correct about the team he was after being former U.S. Special Operations, but which unit did they come from?
Each unit had their own culture, their own bravado, and their own way of doing things. Rangers were typically younger guys. Hard-charging, door-kicking muldoons who took no shit from no one. Special Forces guys were usually older. Often with age they brought some more maturity to the table and the ability to operate in small teams. Most of them were pretty laid back dudes, a character trait needed when conducting their primary missions, unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense. The Ranger mentality didn’t exactly lend itself to training foreign third-world soldiers. While the team sized up Deckard, he had sized them up as well. These guys were not former Rangers or Special Forces.
The other Army Special Operations unit was Delta Force, and that was a whole other animal. Trained for counter-terrorist operations ranging from direct action raids to aircraft take-downs, Delta drew talent from both Special Forces and Rangers and then polished their combat skills to ridiculously high levels. Delta was known for being the military’s most professional unit. The team he was with now seemed a little too nonchalant, like they had an expectation of victory. A sense of entitlement.
The Marines had Recon, Force Recon, and their new Special Operations component, MARSOC. Marines were brought up the right way, starting at boot camp at Paris Island. The Recon and MARSOC shooters in the Marine Corps were clean-cut, belt-fed, straight shooters who knew how to take the fight to the enemy. Their sense of tradition, esprit de corps, and, along with their infantry background placed them closer to Rangers than Special Forces. Deckard frowned. You could pick a single Marine out of a crowd of a hundred people and none of these people were one of them.
Then, you had the Navy. He already suspected that Ramon was a U.S. or Filipino Navy SEAL. Deckard had worked with and respected many men on the teams but had to wonder. The linebacker body types that most of them had came from an obsession that many SEALs had with jacking steel in the gym. There was one particular squadron within SEAL Team Six, the Navy’s equivalent to Delta Force, that was known to specifically recruit the biggest guys out of Green Platoon. It wasn’t much to go on though. Finishing his bottle of water, Deckard knew he’d have to wait and see, develop the situation, and see what shook out of the woodwork.
Hopefully he wouldn’t die in the meantime.
“So you’re here to pick up the slack for Henderson?” A voice said from behind.
Deckard turned to face him, thinking fast. It was the dude with the slicked back hair who had been playing video games.
“Made a non-verbal withdraw from the course on our last op. Ate one to the facepiece.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
“Why?” he asked with a shrug of his shoulder. “Fuck do you care.”
“Just saying. I didn’t know him.”
“Just try to hang with us tonight and don’t step on your crank with golf cleats. If you fuck us, we’ll leave your sorry ass out there.”
“What the fuck ever,” he said as if there was a period after each word. “I heard the RUMINT on you and I don’t fucking buy it. I think you’re just a shithead Army fuck who bolo’ed his ops. You don’t even belong here. You’re not one of us.”
“You mean because I wasn’t in the teams?” Deckard dropped it, intentionally trying to elicit information.
“Fuck the teams. That’s vanilla shit. We operate on a whole different level, even before we left the Navy.”
Gotcha, Deckard thought.
“Hey!” Ramon interrupted from across the room. He was on the satellite phone again.
“We a go?” Bill asked as he looked up from his computer.
“Overwatch has eyes on the target. He just arrived at the objective. This should be his bed-down site unless overwatch reports him leaving.”
“That’s a green light,” Bill confirmed. “Everyone kit up; we roll in ten.”
Deckard’s antagonist with the pretty hair swung back around to confront him one more time.
“You stay on me while we are out there cheese dick. You’re going to pull black-side security on the objective and make sure Hodji doesn’t skull fuck us while our backs are turned. I’ll release you once we get close to the target compound.”
“Grab your shit and let’s go.”
“What’s your callsign on the net?”
“What the fuck is this callsign shit? Just call me Rick.”
Deckard ditched his civilian clothes and slipped into the dishdasha, then shrugged into his chest rig, holstered the Glock, slung his AK-47, and clipped his radio inside his collar. Ramon was already taking all of the documents and maps from the operations center and dumping them into a burn barrel outside. Lighting a match, it all went up in a golden glow that burned in the early evening light.
Deckard headed outside.
Now he was convinced.
It was going to be another one of those nights.
Deckard was now rolling with Liquid Sky.