Pat watched as a car approached in the distance.
It was late afternoon. The city of Homs was burning. Again.
The mercenaries had managed to fight their way out of the city and find a defendable position to bunker down in until they were extracted. Pat had also sent out a few scouting parties to try to find a place where they could safely dispose of chemical weapons. Relatively safe at least, where they wouldn’t kill anyone. There would be environmental damage, but that was the least of Syria’s worries right now.
At the moment, they had sent out a reception party to take control of the second chemical weapon. Pat and a half dozen Kazakh mercenaries were in fixed security positions watching their perimeter while Nikita was in overwatch, using the scope on his sniper rifle to watch for enemy movements. Pat watched as the approaching vehicle swerved a few times and drove a little erratically.
Pat stood up and flashed a red-lens flashlight. It was their agreed upon far recognition signal. The driver flashed his headlights three times in response. The car slowed down before coming to a stop in a cloud of dust. The driver’s side door creaked open. Deckard looked like he was struggling just to get out of the vehicle. Finally, he stood while bracing himself against the side of the car.
“You okay?” Pat asked.
Deckard looked at him like he was a total asshole.
“I’ve been better.” His voice was low and dry.
Deckard shook his head.
“But it’s disarmed and out of terrorist hands. I had to escape and evade after deactivating it. The Syrian police were right on top of me. I did see them take possession of the bomb though. Now it is on them if they want to cover the whole thing up or exploit it for propaganda purposes.”
“That could get ugly.”
“Real ugly, but not as ugly as thousands of dead civilians would have been. If the regime puts footage of the bomb in TV news, it would be a huge propaganda victory for them, but mostly just an embarrassment for the international community rather than World War Three. Besides, the bomb was made by the Russians rather than America, so I doubt they will go that route.”
“The 50% solution. I’m impressed that we even managed that.”
“You and me both.”
“We found a cave nearby. Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Detonating the second bomb is the only way to be sure that it won’t be recycled for use by the rebels down the line. Technically, even the bomb that the government now has could have the electronics torn out of it and be re-used, but they already have a chemical weapons stockpile. If they want to use weapons of mass destruction, then one mustard gas bomb isn’t going to change anything. Setting off the other bomb in a controlled manner ensures that it can never be used again.”
Pat noticed that Deckard was slurring some of his words. He was obviously exhausted and winced a little each time he took a deep breath.
“We need to have one of our medics take a look at you. You’re pretty beat up. But there is something else I want you to see. We captured handful of government loyalists who have been running around the battlefield murdering civilians. Death squad shit designed to intimidate the locals into aligning with government forces.”
“Shabeeha. Ghosts. I’m glad you caught up with them. Liquid Sky just missed them.”
“We killed a couple and the others immediately surrendered. They’re not soldiers, just thugs who were in over their heads the second they were up against anyone who wasn’t a four year old kid.”
“Good. Stick them down in the hole with the mustard gas bomb when we blow it.”
“Better fucking believe it.”
Just then, a thud sounded in the back of Deckard’s car. Something banging around inside the trunk.
“What the hell is that?” Pat asked curiously.
“Another addition to go into the pit with our Shabeeha pals.”
The cave was located in the outskirts of Homs, its existence only evident by a small gap in the side of a cliff. Inside, the rock floor was worn smooth as if it had been polished. The cave had served as a hideout, redoubt, and clandestine meeting place for soldiers, thieves, and bandits since before the time of the Romans.
The latest occupants were four sullen-faced young men in their twenties. They had been restrained with flexcuffs around their hands and ankles. A dozen green glow sticks illuminated the interior of the cave as the Kazakh mercenaries lifted and carried the chemical weapon they had captured inside.
Once the bomb was set down, the four Syrians looked at it and then at each other nervously knowing that nothing good could come from this. Then there was a shuffling at the mouth of the cave as someone was dragged inside by the mercenaries. He was a human giant but walked all hunched over. He was set down in front of the bomb.
Another silhouette was crouched in the opening to the cave, looking inside. He said something in Russian and the foreign mercenaries turned and exited the cave.
Deckard moved aside to let the Kazakhs leave and then stepped inside. He walked into the center of the circle of green chem sticks surrounding the weapon and his five prisoners. Bill didn’t even make eye contact with him. Samruk International medics had patched him up, got his blood pressure back up with an IV bag of HexTend solution, and injected him with some stimulants to keep him conscious. Deckard’s karambit had sliced one of his biceps in half, slashed the veins in his wrist, and disemboweled him. His guts had been balled up on his stomach and stuck in place with gauze and medical tape.
Deckard drew the karambit and knelt down next to him. The Syrian death squad members looked on in dreadful anticipation.
“End of the line.”
Bill continued to look straight down at the ground.
“Get it over with,” he mumbled. “It’s what I would have done to you.”
“It isn’t that simple. I need names. I need to know who you talk to on that encryption system in Mauritius. Who is your client?”
“We’ve changed hands a few times. Multiple Liquid Sky teams, multiple employers.”
“When was the last time you changed hands?”
“A couple months ago when there was a major compromise in Nevada. We were working for Ted Snyder at G3 Communications, but after the compromise everything they were doing came under scrutiny. They moved Liquid Sky off to another handler for security reasons, but since you were the guy in Nevada who made that mess, I guess you already put most of that together.”
“What makes you think I was the guy in Nevada?”
“Got a phone call from the new client. They’re starting to put it all together. They knew you were in Syria but not that you were with us. They asked me to find you and take you out while we were here.”
“Who is the new client?”
Bill looked up at him.
Deckard was silent for a moment.
“A bold claim.”
“It is what it is. This fight is over and I have no loyalty to him.”
“I’m going to need some details.”
“I only know my part of the operation. If you want to know about colored pins stuck in a map of the world then you’ll have to ask McCoy yourself.”
Deckard spent the next hour debriefing Bill, writing things down on a notepad as needed. Bill went over how they communicated with the client, what their arrangements were, how payments were handled, where targeting and intelligence information came from, and the personalities involved in handling Liquid Sky, at least the ones he knew of.
Finally, Deckard stood up and walked over to the bomb.
“That was you in Pakistan, wasn’t it?” Bill asked Deckard as he punched the activation code into the keypad on the bomb.
“Yeah. We did compromise Liquid Sky. Found periphery information in documents in Nevada and traced it to your operations. I would have taken out your whole team right there if possible, but after you slipped through our hands, I had to try something different.”
“I guess we really are two sides of the same coin, then. Letting clients tell us where to go and who to kill.”
“You don’t get it Bill. I don’t have a client. This was a mission that I chose.”
“Because,” Deckard told him as he activated the bomb and set thirty minutes on the timer. “It isn’t enough to just throw on a scroll, a tab, or a trident. We have to earn it. Every day.”
“What a boy scout.”
“I don’t know what happened to you Bill, not sure I want to know, but defaulting to the level of the enemy is unacceptable. You had to have known that what you were doing was sick, even by the standards of war. It couldn’t go on forever. It was vain and self-indulgent. Nothing more.”
Bill leaned forward to try to relieve some of the pain in his abdomen.
“What the fuck ever,” he grunted. “Just leave me the fuck alone.”
Deckard turned and walked away, leaving Bill with the confused death squad members. Unable to understand English, they had no idea what was going on. As Deckard climbed up out of the hole in the ground, he didn’t even think of looking back.
Deckard finished reviewing his notes and put them in his pocket.
“Did you get what you were looking for?” Pat asked him.
“Enough to finish this.”
“Satisfied with the answers?”
The mercenaries looked on as the bomb exploded and a wisp of mustard gas slowly plumed out of the opening of the cave. They had made sure they were upwind before detonation.
“How are we getting out of here?” Deckard asked without taking his eyes off the cloud of mustard gas.
“Unimproved airstrip an hour or so from here. You’ll like what you see.”
Samruk International piled onto a flatbed truck and a van they had procured on the battlefield and drove across a series of back roads to an unmaintained airstrip in the middle of nowhere. From there, they set up a security perimeter and waited. It was too risky to extract during the day with so many surface-to-air missiles floating around.
After having the medics look at his wounds again, Deckard slept like a stone. With the sun going down, the mercenaries measured out some distances and set out infrared strobe lights to mark the landing zone. The pilots would be flying blacked out and under night vision. Pat got on his satellite phone and made contact with the pilots. Encrypted cellular and satellite phones like he and Deckard had been using were really the future of military communications, not just tactical comms but for covert and clandestine operations as well.
Tactics, techniques, and procedures changed fast, and they were all just struggling to keep up.
Deckard woke as the first airplane screamed into the desert airstrip. He hugged himself, trying to get warm. The night air was cold against his skin. He stood and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, but still felt like he was moving in molasses as his body was no where near recovered.
“Take a look,” Pat said, handing him a PVS-14 night vision monocle.
Deckard looked through the night vision device at the plane turning itself around at the end of the landing zone. He whistled.
“C-27J. Samruk International now owns two of them. I figured that if we are going to be a smaller force then we need a tactical air capability. Those Antonovs are great, but these C-27s can conduct short take off and landing on unimproved airfields.”
“Did you bankrupt the company while I was gone?”
“Nah, I got these babies at bargain basement rates. The U.S. government mothballed them the second they came off the assembly line. Budget cuts.”
“Their loss is our gain,” Deckard said as he continued to watch the aircraft.
He watched as the second C-27J landed and dropped its ramp to begin loading the mercenaries onboard.
“I don’t think I can do this job anymore.”
Pat was silent for a moment before replying.
“Deckard, I think this is the only job that you can do.”