The staging area was a bombed-out crater, the ruins of what had once been a series of family housing units on the outskirts of Homs. Now, it was Al-Nusra’s command center for their Homs offensive. The city looked even more bombed out then Beirut had been back in the 80s. Buildings were now hollowed out skeletons, walls partially collapsed, floors pancaked on top of each other. Bullet holes were blasted everywhere. Larger holes signified tank or anti-tank fire. Homs had pretty much seen it all at this point.
The odd crack of gunfire could be heard as Nusra and the Syrian Army took pot shots at each other, but for the most part it was quiet in the early morning hours. The two forces were at a stalemate. They each held their lines throughout the city and only occasionally pushed forward, making small offensives here and there where they thought they saw an opening in the enemy’s defenses and could gain some ground.
As for the civilians still living in the city, they were shit out of luck. If they didn’t get killed in the crossfire, the ghosts from the Alawite death squad would probably ensure that they met a fate that was much worse.
Deckard watched as the Nusra fighters prepared for battle. Nearly one hundred of the terrorists were operating out of the base. They ran around like excited little bumble bees, some as giddy as a school girl at the prospect of being able to use chemical weapons on civilians in Damascus. The tanks were being fueled up and the flatbed trucks, which would carry the weapons, were being armored with metal plating welded onto the sides. They would be taking the Mad Max convoy south during the next period of darkness.
The sun was still coming up, but Nusra could not wait. They were also preparing weapons and ammunition. Several SA-7 anti-aircraft launchers were made ready. They had the control units and multiple missiles for each. Since the battery life on the SA-7 was only about thirty seconds once it was screwed into place, they had improvised wire leads that went from the control unit to a car battery to keep them powered for the duration. The Syrian Air Force could not count on air superiority as they crashed their way into the capital city.
Deckard took a seat between the two mustard gas bombs, which had been set down under the remains of the second story of a building, now serving as more of an awning. For now, he had been placed on guard duty while the rest of the Liquid Sky team got a few hours of sleep in shifts. Paul would relieve him in an hour. Powering his satellite phone back up, Deckard used an app to get a grid location to the Nusra staging area and texted it to Pat. He also gave a brief estimate of the enemy’s size, strength, and disposition.
With the phone concealed behind the bomb, he continued to type with his thumbs.
14.5 AA gun, NW corner bld.
Package centrally located
LiqSky element N bld bombed out
SA-7’s in compound
He kept typing until he saw a couple jihadists approaching. They were lugging a SPG-9 recoilless rifle towards one of the trucks. Deckard pressed send and slipped the phone in his pocket. He would try to feed Pat as much real-time intelligence as possible. The tricky part was going to be slipping away himself in the chaos and confusion that would occur once Samruk International attacked. He had to make sure he didn’t get killed by Nusra, Liquid Sky, or his own people who wouldn’t recognize him in the local garb he wore at a distance.
The phone vibrated in his pocket. He waited until the jihadists had busied themselves loading the recoilless rifle on the back of the truck before looking to see what Pat had texted.
Deckard texted back:
Hold off 1 more hr. Going to soften them up for you.
Deckard waited until Paul came to relieve him on guard duty. He was still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.
“Don’t forget to wake up the family of birds that have been nesting in your beard,” Deckard joked.
Paul grunted something in response. Walking through the Nusra compound, Deckard surveyed the enemy positions one more time. Guards were lazily standing up on the second and third stories of the bombed-out buildings surrounding the central area. It was really just a crater that Nusra had cleaned out to create a small courtyard. The guards were mostly looking inwards, watching their comrades prepare for their holy war, rather than facing out and looking for intruders. That would play well in Samruk’s favor.
Deckard pretended to walk towards the building where the Liquid Sky team was getting some rest, but then ducked behind the flatbed trucks and tanks in the Nusra motorpool. Turning sideways, he side stepped his way between two of the tanks and then rolled under one of the Mazda flatbed trucks. He wanted to disable them first so the chemical weapons could not be driven away when the attack kicked off.
Laying on his back, he wormed his way forward until he was under the engine compartment. Finding the firewall, he was able to trace his way up and find the wires, that ran from the transmission to the computer. He carried a Grayman Duo folder knife on his kit that would do the job. Opening the knife silently with his thumb and forefinger, he locked the blade open and began slashing the wires which would prevent the engine from starting.
He froze as a pair of boots kicked up dust alongside the truck. One of the Nusra fighters stopped next to the flatbed and was loading something on the back. While he was busy, Deckard rolled over onto his stomach and crawled hand over hand until he was under the second flatbed. He repeated the same procedure once he was under the engine, and then slashed the serpentine belt just to make sure.
Making sure the coast was clear, he crawled out from under the truck and walked over to the closest T-72 tank. At one point in time, it had been the fiercest main battle tank in the Soviet arsenal. Today, variants and surplus T-72’s were sold all over the world, including countries like Syria and Iraq. Crawling up the front of the tank, he lowered himself into the driver’s seat and went to work on the wiring behind the panels. None of his impromptu sabotage would take long for a mechanic to fix, but that was fine. He just had to disable the vehicles for the duration of Samruk’s attack on the compound.
Another Nusra fighter came walking by with a crate of AK-47 ammunition slung on his shoulder. Deckard ducked down inside the tank until he had passed. Climbing off the now-disabled T-72, he moved on to the next tank and repeated the procedure. He was about to sabotage the third tank when four Nusra fighters heaved two crates over to the motor pool. The crates were filled with tank shells, which they began loading on the vehicles.
Playing it off, Deckard just faded away as if nothing was out of place. There wasn’t much else he could do without exposing himself. Still, taking out two tanks and ensuring that the chemical weapons could not be easily moved was adequate. It was unlikely that the remaining two T-72’s would play any role in the close-in urban fighting that was about occur.
Now he just had to go find a quiet corner of the compound to go hunker down in and wait until the attack commenced. He would feed real-time intel back to Pat until then.
Climbing through the rubble, Deckard skipped up a half-demolished concrete staircase and onto the second floor. Metal rebar poked through the walls where the damage was bad; cracks sheared their way down the walls as if the building had been through an earthquake.
Looking out the empty window, he watched the Nusra fighters continuing to prepare for their latest martyr operation, one that in this case would include the use of weapons of mass destruction.
Deckard took a deep breath.
He was now operating on an accelerated failure time model and his time was almost up.
Heads up, the text message read.
Deckard ducked down behind the window sill.
He heard metal meet flesh with a thwack. The sound of the body hitting the ground was muffled as the gunshot rang out like a thunder clap. It was a sniper initiated raid. Firing the .300 Win Mag, a closed bolt weapon, Nikita would be working over the guards posted around the perimeter of the staging area.
A narrow street had been barricaded over with scrap wood, sheet metal, and razor wire. It was the back door into the Nusra fortress. Samruk International opened it by firing several TP rounds into the barricade with the Carl Gustav recoilless rifle. The 84mm Training Purpose rounds were inert: they were filled with concrete instead of high explosives. For that reason, they were great for breaching an objective from a stand-off position when you didn’t necessarily want to kill everyone inside, like Deckard for instance. Or maybe Pat just didn’t want to blast open a couple bombs filled with mustard gas.
The first TP round sent wooden splinters flying and scrap metal spinning through the air. Before the Gustav gunner could reload and fire his second round, Nikita had taken out two more guards with his sniper rifle and Samruk’s support by fire line had opened up. Deckard couldn’t see outside the compound and could only visualize how it was all playing out in his mind’s eye.
When the second TP round slammed into the barricade, Deckard stole a glance out the window. The barricade was demolished to the point that the Samruk commandos would be able to start putting men through the fatal funnel once they bounded up. Deckard decided to help them out a little and stayed low as he moved towards the sound of Nusra gunmen who were returning fire.
Pausing to peer through a crack in the wall, Deckard saw the Nusra fighters trying to start up the flatbeds to no avail. Two of the four tank drivers were also frustrated. Just then the Liquid Sky mercenaries burst out of the building they had been racked out in.
The Operator manhandled one of the Nusra fighters out of the cab of the truck and got behind the wheel but he wasn’t getting any love either. Deckard could hear Bill cursing a storm even in the middle of the firefight.
Deckard moved like a ghost through the compound, slipping over debris and sticking to the walls as he went looking for the Nusra fighters that had run to the walls to join the fight. He found the first one leaning out one of the windows and firing down on the Samruk positions outside. Deckard took a knee, aimed, and put a bullet in the back of his head from ten feet away. The terrorist slumped forward and rolled right out the window.
Turning a corner, Deckard found two more terrorists attempting to beat back the Samruk mercenaries. He shot both of them in the back with his AK. War was an ugly thing, and this was probably the ugliest he had seen. Chivalry would get him and a lot of other good people killed.
He continued to move at a crouch, staying low and not even daring to glance outside to see where his men were. That was all it would take for Nikita to mistake him for the enemy and take his head off.
Another Nusra fighter leaped up from the stairwell with a RPG-7 launcher over his shoulder. He held the rocket launcher canted upwards so that the anti-tank rocket didn’t slide out and blow up at his feet. Moving to a window, he began aiming through the iron sights until Deckard cut him down.
Back inside the compound the two operational T-72 tanks had rumbled to life. The Samruk mercenaries had to get inside and disable them before Nusra could get them into action. Heading downstairs, Deckard was just in time to see the treads on one of the tanks start spinning as it blasted through what was left of the barricade. Two seconds later, an anti-tank round fired from the Carl Gustav slammed into it. Fire belched out of the open hatch on the top and then curled into a plume of oily black smoke.
The driver in the second tank stopped near where the barricade had been as he watched his buddy get wasted. Throwing the tank into reverse, he backed right into a wall which partially collapsed onto the turret. The treads began to spin until they gain purchase and yanked the vehicle out of the debris.
“Fucking god damn pole smoking-!”
Bill was still irate at the turn of events.
Peeking around a corner, he saw the Liquid Sky team with the two mustard gas bombs up on the stretchers again. With the flatbeds disabled, they were running them back out the way they had come in. Several Nusra fighters were already opening the gate. It was clear that whoever was attacking them knew what the fuck they were doing and that Nusra would not be able to hold onto the compound.
It was Deckard’s turn to curse.
With only one platoon at his disposal, Pat was unable to have Samruk contain the objective. There would be no black side security element to cut off the enemy’s escape. They had relied on speed, surprise, and violence of action. The shock and awe would have worked on the Nusra fighters but Liquid Sky was composed of former Special Operations soldiers who had seen countless battles.
Even with Deckard’s sabotage slowing them down, Bill had quickly sized up the situation and made a decision. He was going to squirt off the objective and live to fight another day.
He looked back at the tank, which was partially blocking the back entrance that Samruk was suppressing with automatic gunfire, then back towards Liquid Sky as they heaved the two weapons of mass destruction onto their shoulders and marched toward the gate.
“Where the fuck is Deckard?” he heard Paul ask between gunshots.
“Probably dead,” Rick answered without a shred of remorse in his voice.
“Deckard!” Bill yelled.
He had to stay with those weapons.
Breaking cover, he ran over to the Liquid Sky mercenaries as the remaining T-72 fired its main gun. The blast shook the entire compound.
“Where the fuck have you been?” Nadi screamed over the noise.
“Laying down some fire,” he answered. “Those fucks are right on top of us.”
“Who are they?” The Operator asked as they cleared the gate.
Deckard shook his head.
“Coordinated. Must be Syrian Army.”
“15th Special Forces,” Ramon grunted as they moved out. As the short man on bomb duty, he was getting the short end of the stick. “Hardcore regime loyalists.”
Tiger, the Chechen Nusra leader was up front and attempting to wave down a passing car. The Chechen wasn’t going to be separated from the bombs either. They were his one way ticket to entering the Jihad Hall of Fame with Bin Laden and Zarqawi. Maybe glorious martyrdom as well.
A burst from his Kalashnikov stopped a passing car. He flung open the door and dragged the driver out. His wife started screaming so he fired another long burst into the air to shut her up. Liquid Sky quickly loaded one bomb into the trunk and the other in the back seat. A second car rolled up behind the first just in time for Rick to commandeer it as well. Tiger and the Liquid Sky mercenaries piled inside the two cars, leaving Deckard as the odd man out.
Bill slammed the passenger side door on Deckard.
“Jump on the roof and hang on.”
Suddenly Tiger stepped out from behind the driver’s seat and let off a few more rounds from his AK. The bullets plunged into a passing civilian riding a motor scooter. The limp body tumbled off the back and rolled on the pavement.
Tiger looked at Deckard while pointing to the scooter with a smile on his face. Murdered for a Vespa. The Chechen got back into the sedan and took the wheel. Stepping on the gas, he led the two car convoy deeper into Homs.
Deckard looked at the corpse. He had been a young kid, callously gunned down by a foreign fighter looking to make a name for himself in some kind of bogus holy war. He lifted the scooter back onto its wheels and started it as he took a seat, knowing full well that there wasn’t enough soap in the world to wash off the blood that was on his hands.
All he could do was hope to hide the blood stains under a dirty pair of shooting gloves.
Peeling off after the two cars, Deckard looked over his shoulder back at the compound. Clouds of thick black smoke rose above the Nusra staging ground. They were out of business, but Samruk had been unable to close the net fast enough. All Deckard could do was try to keep up with Liquid Sky and try to walk Samruk back into the target.
Deep down, he knew that he couldn’t take down Liquid Sky on his own.
Tiger led the convoy through the streets of Homs, crisscrossing through the maze of streets and navigating toward the Nusra frontlines where they battled the Syrian Army. With their rear area being overrun by Samruk International, they now had to push deeper into the city to join forces with the frontline jihadist troops.
Deckard sped after the cars, the whine of the engine sounding like a lawn mower as he buzzed down the street. Shattered car hulks sat on the sides of the road covered in a layer of cement dust created by the crumbling buildings. They were mostly four or five story structures, once apartment buildings, now hollowed out lifeless shells. This was what the world would look like after all the human beings finished killing each other and no one was left.
Cruising through the apocalypse on a Vespa was not one of Deckard’s career highlights.
The cars took some sniper fire at one of the cross streets. A bullet slammed into the roof of Tiger’s sedan and chipped the paint away around the hole it left. Deckard ducked as he gunned it across the intersection, knowing he was one of those yellow ducks that kids shot at with bb guns at a carnival game. But the shot never came and he continued on.
They took another turn and passed through a Nusra checkpoint. Pops and cracks sounded somewhere up ahead, the shots echoing between the buildings. A SA-7 anti-aircraft rocket whooshed off into the sky, its heat-seeking warhead tracking something up in the sky that Deckard never caught sight of.
Before long they had snaked through so many streets and back alleys that Deckard wasn’t even sure where in the city they were. They stopped alongside a Toyota pickup truck that had been modified in someone’s garage to fire rocket artillery. Metal pipes had been fitted to the bed of the truck on a rack, the pipes propped up at an angle so the rockets would be hurled like giant spitballs over the roofs of the buildings and into the positions held by the Syrian Army. Or at least somewhere in the same neighborhood.
The cars stopped and Tiger got out to haggle with the vehicle’s owner. Meanwhile two other Nusra fighters came running down the street. They were both bloodied and one looked like he had lost his weapon. When they got near they started yelling at the Chechen. Deckard rode his scooter closer to listen to what was being said.
The Nusra fighters were telling Tiger that they couldn’t go down that street. The Syrian Army was on the offensive and had just taken several buildings that allowed them to cut off that avenue. Nusra was being beat back in Homs and the frontlines were shifting minute to minute.
“What the hell is going on Deckard?” Bill asked as he stepped out of the car.
“Syrian Army up ahead. It’s a no-go.”
“So we got the Army to our rear and to the front?”
Deckard continued to listen to the Nusra fighters.
“And our flanks. This neighborhood is a major pocket of resistance that is holding out as the Syrians encircle them,” Deckard said knowing full well that it was his own men who held the rear area and prevented their escape.
“Motherfucker,” Bill said. “We will have to hard point in one of these buildings and wait for night before attempting a break out.”
Four more fighters came running down the street, each one lifting a wounded fighter by an arm or a leg. They arrived panting and struggling to catch their breath. Behind them, an artillery barrage slammed into a building, probably the one they had just left. The arty barrage completely collapsed one of the exterior walls which slid apart like a Jacob’s Ladder and blocked off half of the street.
Now a full-blown shouting match had erupted between Liquid Sky’s Chechen escort and the other jihadists. Deckard was struggling to keep up with all the different accents and dialects. Everyone was losing their composure as they came to realize that they were now boxed in by the enemy.
“This is bullshit,” Bill said. “I want a hard point secured for the night.”
He pointed to the nearest building.
“Get in there and empty it. We own this place now.”
Rick and Paul took the lead, kicking in the flimsy metal door and entering the ground level. The Operator and Ramon followed them inside. Deckard left the scooter on its kickstand and went towards the door. He was prevented from entering as several civilians came pouring out of the door screaming. Armed foreigners were now breaking into their home and forcing them out.
Several women were crying, one holding a little girl at her side. A man came stumbling out of the house, and then a teenage boy. Inside, Rick was barking orders. Nadi came up alongside Deckard and started yelling at the civilians in Arabic, attempting to get them to shut up and move along.
Another man was pushed out of the front door. He stumbled before he caught himself and then began calling back inside. A boy who Deckard took to be his son ran around Ramon as he stood in the hallway and joined his father outside.
Paul stepped around the shattered door and back outside.
“It’s empty,” Paul said to Bill. “We can move the weapons in.”
Just then, the man broke away from his son and ran up to Paul. The Syrian got right up in his face, screaming in Arabic. Deckard knew he was saying that they were wrong for kicking them out of their own home and that they had no right. Paul didn’t speak Arabic and had no idea what he was carrying on about. The Liquid Sky member reached out and pushed the civilian back.
“Get the fuck out of here guy.”
Deckard spoke up in Arabic to try to get him to calm down but to no avail.
The Syrian was waving his finger in the air and shouting at Paul. He stepped forward, closing the distance again.
Paul snapped into a ready-up drill and pumped two shots from his AK-47 into the man’s chest. He fell like a marionette with its string cut. The civilian was dead before he hit the ground, lights out. Deckard stopped in his tracks.
The little boy ran to his father’s corpse and threw himself on top of him as tears streamed down his cheeks. As he cried, he began sobbing for his father to wake up. The kid couldn’t have been older than eight or nine.
Paul stepped forward and put the barrel of his AK to the boy’s head.
Deckard never remembered reaching for his weapon.
No matter how hard he tried, he was never able to remember his fist closing on the pistol grip of the Kalashnikov, or his thumb sliding off the safety level, or bringing the stock into his shoulder. The rifle was just there, the front sight post gently bobbing as it aligned with the rear sight.
He did remember squeezing the trigger and watching the back of Paul’s scalp tear off and fly through the air with a lump of hair still attached.